Aircrew 1943-1946 - RAF Regiment 1946-1966
Wartime MemoriesOn 3 June 1943, I was barely a week past 18 and I was in Belfast and in the RAF. It was a memorable day in my life for it set me on a new course, one which I appreciate in retrospect though there were passages of frustration and dissatisfaction. Having gone through the usual enlistment procedures of form filling, confirmation of age, medical checks, oath taking etc., our group of recruits were taken from Clifton Street to the RAF station at Newtownards, Co. Down, some twenty minutes drive away. There barrack accommodation was allotted, uniforms, kitbags and accessories issued and we were subjected to drill sessions and enlightment on RAF ranks and customs.
We were a motley crew, from north and south of Ireland (I am a Cork boy), unemployed, ex-Police and Irish Army deserters, all strangers to me. My first night in barracks made me realise I had really left home and I recall tears came to my eyes as I thought of home. At Newtownards I saw my first Bomber, a big, black, twin-engined ‘monster’; I would fly in a similar one later. It looked huge but paled into insignificance against larger aircraft in which I later flew. Some ten days later we travelled by ferry to Stranraer in Scotland and on to Padgate in Lancashire where our RAF training really began. We were confined to camp for our first 6 weeks and apart from training undertook aptitude tests and I was assigned as an Aircraft Flight Mechanic.
However, I saw a notice saying volunteers for Aircrew were wanted (all Aircrew were volunteers it should be noted) and so I submitted my name and was called for further medical, aptitude and educational tests. A 500 word essay from five given topics (including Battle of Britain, Battle of the Atlantic and similar topics not covered in Irish curricula). The fifth was ‘subject of your choice’ and I wrote on ‘The History of Ireland’ and apparently said and did the right things for I was accepted for aircrew training and wore proudly the white flash (denoting aircrew trainee) on my forage cap. However, the flash had drawbacks as Drill Instructors were prone to pick out trainees whose drill was not up to their standards and the comment would be barked out ‘You, with the White Flash - the cream of the Air Force - you’ve gone sour!’
Aircrew trainees did not do the full recruit training and were soon despatched to Abbey Lodge and Viceroy Court, St. John’s Wood, London, for further aptitude tests such as night vision-blind testing. We were asked to select which category we sought from Pilot-Navigator-Bomb Aimer, Flight Engineer-Wireless Operator, or Air Gunner and I opted for the latter as it sounder more combative. I did not choose the first category as I could not imagine flying a plane (as all I had ever driven was a bicycle) and navigating or dropping bombs did not attract me. Having been accepted as an Air Gunner I felt I had made the wrong choice when told an Air Gunner’s life expectancy was 7-14 hours flying - opting out at that point seemed cowardly.
We drilled in nearby streets and our anti-gas training was at Lords Cricket Grounds and physical training at Seymour Hall. My few weeks in London enabled me to visit an aunt and my older brother who was working at Ford’s. Life in London at that time was fraught with ‘flying bombs’ and other air raids, and our youthful exuberance made our time there hectic. My pay at the lowest RAF rank was 3 shillings a day and compulsory ‘war savings’ of sixpence a day were deducted (eventually refunded in 1947) and I allotted one shilling a day to my mother, leaving me with one and sixpence for myself.
Aircrew training began in earnest in July 1943 at No.14 Initial Training Wing, Bridlington, a popular seaside resort on the Yorkshire coast. We were billeted in commandeered houses a few streets back from the beach. There we drilled, had training in aircraft recognition, weapons, and morse code, the latter enjoyable for we practised Aldis lamp signalling on the beach. We ‘dined’ at a beach front complex which had been an entertainment-visitor’s centre pre-war. The food was good and the accommodation an improvement on the Padgate hutted barracks though not up to the luxury of London’s Viceroy Court (expensive pre-war flats facing Regent’s Park) where we had begun our training. Bridlington still had a lot of visitors and I enjoyed talking to them, and the fact they seemed to understand me for at that time I had a strong Irish (Cork) accent - the lilt of the Cork accent has not fully left me more than 55 years on.
Our next move took us to No.1 Elementary Air Gunner’s School at Bridgenorth, Shropshire, a lovely, little town in the English midlands, divided by geology into ‘High Town’ and ‘Low Town’. The four weeks training was hectic and demanding. Aircraft recognition, essential to an Air Gunner, was reduced to a 2-3 second exposure and time-testing of .303 aircraft machine guns, stripping, cleaning and assembly a regular feature of weapon training. Our group, together since July, broke up as postings to various Gunnery Schools were announced at parade. I was sent to No.4 Air Gunner’s School outside Morpeth, near Newcastle in Northumberland, and at last the serious training began, flying a major part of it. We were fortunate that we were to use the twin-engined Anson aircraft which had recently replaced the Blackburn Botha which had not proved particularly airworthy.
At Morpeth I made close friends with a fellow Corkonian, Jim Murphy, John Mann of Saffron Waldon (whom I met again in 1996) and Alf McCoy of Birmingham (whom I met again after 51 years in 1994). The flying part of the training was particularly enjoyable, though sometimes frightening depending on which pilot we had. The Anson had one turret and usually three trained Gunners changed places in the aircraft depending on the particular exercise. The last into the turret generally sat with the pilot on take-off and had to wind up the undercarriage - some three hundred winds, or so it seemed! As well as normal training, we also had to take turns on airfield guard duty and it was difficult next day after a two-hours on/four hours off night duty (during cold winter in the North of England) to be attentive in class or concentrate on flying exercises.
I was to finish my course at the end of 1943 but fate decreed otherwise. Coming back from my weekly day-off in Newcastle, the bus went over a large bump in the road and I swallowed my chewing gum. In the early hours of the morning I awoke with great pain in my right side and very feverish. At daybreak I washed and dressed, got my emergency kit and gasmask and struggled on foot for a mile or so to the Sick Quarters to see the Medical Officer and was told I would be taken by ambulance to the Army hospital at Stannington nearby. While waiting I fell asleep and when I awoke at 11 am I inquired where the ambulance was and was told ‘good heavens, we forgot!’ I was then rushed to hospital and was found to have a burst appendix - the chewing gum had blocked entry to the small appendix. I was soon on the operating table and awoke to find a priest administering ‘the last rites’! A nurse had seen RC stamped on my identity disks and seeing my serious condition summoned ‘heavenly help’. The surgeon (a Czechoslovakian) told me I had peritonitis and that my recovery was a near thing. Had I finished my training course I would have been crewed up with friend Jim Murphy who was killed towards the end of his operational tour with Bomber Command in September 1944 when I was on the same raid but with No.75 N.Z. Squadron.
In January 1944 in Edinburgh, I had to be reassessed as fit for aircrew and restarted training finally gaining my Air Gunner’s Brevet in April 1944. After a short leave I was posted to No.11 Operational Training Unit at Westcott. Posting instructions gave no clue to its location and in desperation I had to go to a Police Station for assistance, security being such that telephone inquiries about Service establishments were not accepted. Wescott was some 4 miles from Aylesbury (Buckinghamshire) and while waiting at a bus stop I was approached by a New Zealand Air Force Sergeant who asked if this was the Westcott bus stop. And so began a friendship with Navigator Jack Scott which continues today.
Once we settled in the Sergeants’ Mess, Jack and I set out to find ourselves a crew - this was how it was done in the RAF in those wartime days. Jack told me he had met a NZ Wireless Operator and a Bomb Aimer who were ‘looking for a crew’ and I knew another RAF Air Gunner on a similar quest and so we got together and all we then needed was a Pilot. Our bomb Aimer heard of a Pilot who needed a crew and so ‘we looked this Flying Officer over’ and decided this tall, red-haired Kiwi fitted the bill and so completed our crew - our Captain, Flying Officer Gordon Cuming of Feilding, N.Z. and from ‘nose to tail’ we had F/Sgt. (later Pilot Officer) Syd Sewell of Ashburton, NZ, Bomb-Aimer Sergeant (later Flying Officer) Jack Scott of Auckland, F/Sgt. (later W/O) Jack Christie of Invergargill, NZ, Sergeant (RAF) Bill Scott of Leven, Fife, and myself.
Intensive training was the name of the game at Westcott where we had to get used to the biggest aircraft any of us had yet flown in - the twin-engined Wellington Bomber. At Westcott and its satellite airfield at Oakey, 5 miles away, we had ground-school and air exercises including fighter affiliation, cine-camera and air to drogue firing and there were moments of trepidation for the crew in flying with a pilot who had never flown a Wellington before but we discovered Gordon Cuming was a superb Pilot and we never had cause to change our opinion.
Cross-country flying exercises, initially up the Irish Sea, followed by diversionary exercises in the English Channel, up the coasts of France, Holland and Germany were the ‘order of the day’. This had its hazards as on more than one occasion we met home-coming Bomber streams at our height - dodging them was a nerve-testing exercise. From Wellingtons we moved on to No.1657 Bomber Conversion Unit at Stradishall (and satellite station at nearby Shephard’s Grove); (I returned to Stradishall 13 years later as Ground Defence Officer). We converted to the Stirling bomber, a four-engined aircraft requiring a Flight Engineer and were fortunate to find Sgt. Jack Lambert, another Irishman, who joined us.
Bill Scott and I decided that he would be Mid-Upper Gunner and I would be the Rear Gunner which I was relaxed about despite gory tales of ‘hosing out the Rear Gunner after aerial combat’ (there were few survivors of this rear end position). We carried out circuits and landings, practised bombing and special navigation exercises which took us into operational and support roles. The Stirling was roomy, the Pilot’s cockpit over 18 feet above ground and some 80 feet from my rear turret.
After forty-one flying hours in the Stirling we moved to No.3 Lancaster Finishing School at Feltwell in Suffolk to convert to Lancasters. We had 6 days of ground instruction, aircraft evacuation exercises, familiarisation with aircraft systems and aircraft recognition tests, 3 days of flying including a cross-country night exercise taking us out in the ‘decoy sequence’ and after a final twelve hours twenty-five minutes of flying in the Lancaster we were considered ready for full war operations. We were led to believe we were being posted to San Diego, USA, for conversion to the four-engined Liberator to take part in Pacific operations, particularly raids on Japan. However, No.75 New Zealand Bomber Squadron had recently suffered severe losses in operations over Europe and seven crews from our training contingent were taken off the ‘Pacific Register’ and posted to No.75 at Mepal, near Ely in Cambridgeshire.
We arrived at Mepal late August-September 1944 and three days later flew our first real mission - the bombing of German troop concentrations near Le Havre. From then on there was little respite as we were called on to bomb targets in France, Holland and Germany, particularly targets in the Ruhr industrial area, and taking part in several ‘one-thousand plus bomber’ raids. One exceptional operation was dropping dummy parachutists from 2000 feet in support of ‘Operation Market Garden’, the famous Arnhem operation of 17 September 1944. My log book tells the story; we flew to and from operations on three engines with a rear turret that had to be manually operated, an engagement over Saarbrucken with a Junkers 88 fighter, bombing German troops near Le Havre from 900 feet and firing at them from my turret.
I flew a total of thirty-one operations, not counting ‘training diversionary exercises’ from units prior to joining 75 Squadron. One raid which stands out in my mind was a night raid on Saarbrucken on 5 October 1944. The trip lasted just over five hours. Three Lancasters were lost, and in one of them were two close friends; I have in recent years had contact with the son (who was one year old when his father was killed) of one of them. Saarbrucken was also the place where we were attacked by a German JU 88 night fighter. It was unusual for fighters to attack in the target area; we had just dropped our bombs when tracer fire was directed at the tail of our aircraft. I spotted the JU 88 and returned fire yelling at the same time to the Pilot to ‘corkscrew port’ which was the automatic drill to get out of the line of fire. I was certain I had hit the fighter and at this point firing also came over my head and I presumed we also were being fired on by an enemy aircraft in front of us. However, the frontal fire was coming from our mid-upper gunner whose guns had automatically stopped firing when pointed towards the tail of our aircraft and he thought he had a gun stoppage and so used the manual gun over-ride! Luckily he did no damage to the aircraft or, more importantly, to me. I claimed the fighter as ‘destroyed’ but as no corroborating evidence was available at the time the claim was labelled ‘an inconclusive combat.’
Flying on bombing operations as a nineteen year old was, in a way, a traumatic experience; seeing one’s friends shot down and aircraft being hit and exploding in the air, learning of friends ‘missing’ after an air operation and seeing the empty dispersal bays where their aircraft formerly parked, experiencing fierce and concentrated German searchlights and anti-aircraft fire (and the cordite smell when flying through it) and feeling one’s aircraft being hit, gazing down on targets hit by bombs from several hundred to over a thousand Lancasters, near collisions with other bombers en-route or returning from a raid, were all every day incidents but had little or no effect on me. I have no regrets about being part of a force which wreaked havoc on German targets - my regrets are reserved for the innocent people who suffered as a result of the German activity within and outside its borders.
During my flying operations and for some years afterwards, I was an average religious person. On air operations I always carried rosary beads which my mother gave me when I left home to join the RAF - with them was a religious medallion which my first teacher, Sister Patrick, had given me. On a couple of occasions when I forgot to carry them I must admit I was a bit apprehensive. I still have the beads, somewhat showing their age, particularly the effects of oil on them when a hydraulic pipe in my turret broke during an air operation and scattered oil over me, particularly my face and eyes which required treatment on return to base. If not flying on a Sunday I used to attend Mass at the Station Church. The congregation was usually no more than half a dozen service personnel and sometimes as few as two - myself and a New Zealand wireless operator named Ted Howard who also served as ‘altar boy’. Ted was killed on a raid on Solingen in November 1944 along with the rest of his crew.
The casualty rate on 75 (N.Z.) Squadron was high during our crew’s posting (September 1944 - February 1945) - a total of 14 aircraft were lost (43.7%), just under half the Squadron strength. My total operational flying hours were 119.8, averaging 4.2 hours on each operation (though some were of 10-12 hours duration). The aircrew casualty rate of RAF aircrew for the entire war was 69.2% of whom 69.1% were non-commissioned officers like myself (that for Officers 27.6% and Warrant Officers (which I later became) was 3.3%). 75 (N.Z.) Squadron was the first and only New Zealand Bomber Squadron in Bomber Command and had one Victoria Cross winner, carried out the fourth-highest number of bombing raids in Bomber Command’s ‘Heavy’ Squadrons, flew the most sorties in the Group, suffered the second-highest casualties and believed to have dropped the third-greatest tonnage of bombs. This is a record every one of the Squadron are proud of.
After 75 (N.Z.) Squadron service I was attached to No.1653 Heavy Bomber Conversion Unit at North Luffenham, near Stamford, Rutlandshire, where I completed an Air Gunnery Instructor’s Course. Our crew, less Pilot Gordon Cuming and Navigator Jack Scott, were posted to the Air Crew Allocation Centre newly- established at RAF Station Catterick, Yorkshire. After a few weeks of administrative activities there we were posted to various RAF units to begin our ‘Post-Operational Rest Period’. The Flight Engineer Jack Lambert and I were posted to No.32 Maintenance Unit, RAF St. Athan, near Barry, Glamorganshire, South Wales, where I was assigned to clerical duties in the Engine Repair Squadron and Jack Lambert was assigned to Merlin Engine servicing along with another Flight Engineer, John Hortop (with whom I corresponded from 1945 till his death in 1990 and with his family since).
The administrative experience stood me in good stead in my later RAF career. Early in my time there I was ‘earmarked’ for ‘Tiger Force’, an RAF Bomber element which was to go to the Pacific (Okinawa) for operations against Japan. While at St. Athan I was fortunate enough to maintain flying experience in Mosquito and Beaufighter aircraft at adjacent No.19 Maintenance Unit. After heavy bombers I appreciated the speed and limited crew numbers (2) of the Mosquito. Life at St. Athan was very relaxed after air operations and there were some eight aircrew ‘resting’. We were youngsters compared with our fellow Warrant and Non-commissioned Officer colleagues in the Technical categories. They looked upon us as ‘upstarts’ - after all they had been in the Service for many years and we (aircrew) had reached their equivalent status in a year or two! There was some resentment as most of them had little or no service on operational units but only in maintenance and instructional posts. Gradually we got accepted. I was fortunate that my Commanding Officer, Wing Commander H.S. King, OBE, and the squadron Warrant Officer E. Banwell, were somewhat ‘fatherly figures’. Both were pre-War RAF and concern for their juniors was an evident characteristic.
Apart from atrocious weather I enjoyed my posting. War in Europe finished in May 1945 and in August 1945 Japan surrendered (Jack Lambert, John Hortop and I celebrated in Cardiff) and so our move to the Pacific fell through. The immediate impact on most Emergency Service Personnel (those, like myself, in the Services for the duration) was the prospect of demobilisation to be given by ‘Release Groups’. I was group No.48 which meant ‘demob’ in about one year as a minimum. Many aircrew were surplus to requirements and were given all sorts of odd jobs to keep them occupied while an orderly demob process began. I was quite content in my clerical role which I enjoyed. Since April 1945 I had been a Flight Sergeant, a mere youth among my elderly ground-crew colleagues.
Late in 1945 Air Ministry introduced a 3 year engagement scheme of ‘Extended Service for Aircrew’. I applied and was accepted, for had I not done so I would have been remustered as Air Gunner Under Training, Clerk General Duties, a prospect I was not enamoured of as it might have meant a drop or two in rank. It was at this time that Wing Commander King sent for me. I wondered what I had done! With him was Warrant Officer Banwell and they asked what my future service intentions were? I said I hoped to soon get a posting to flying duties. King then asked if I had given any thought to seeking a commission - Mr Banwell told me a Branch of the Air Force, the RAF Regiment, was seeking candidates for commissioning and was I interested? I had vaguely heard of the Regiment but knew little about it, and said I would like to know more and was prepared to apply. I obviously got a strong recommendation from King and Banwell and arrangements were made for me to apply and be interviewed by the Station Education Officer. This interview and test was followed by an interview with the Senior RAF Regiment Officer at the RAF Technical Apprentices’ Training School.