New Year, a new beginning
As nineteen-thirty-nine was welcomed in, I celebrated at home with my parents on the North East coast of England. I’d just spent my first four months at university, the first member of our family to attend such an institution after I had gained a scholarship to the local Grammar school and did so well in my exams that I was accepted for another scholarship to study Maths and Engineering at Durham University.
I had come home for Christmas to spend it with my family, but also, to deliver some news that I knew would be unexpected, and upsetting, especially to my mother.
I’d waited until after Christmas and it was the day before New Year’s Eve when I sat my parents down and delivered the news that I was leaving university and had enlisted in the Royal Air Force. My mother was shocked and cried, and I hated that, but my father comforted her and assured me that given time, she would come around.
When we were alone, my father told me that he was proud of me, and understood why I had decided to enlist. He had been a pilot in the First World War and had survived many close-shaves throughout the conflict, including being shot down and successfully landing his damaged aircraft on two occasions. He understood my motivation for choosing the Air Force, and, we had all heard the rumblings about the impending war, and I wanted to do my duty.
After the war, Dad bought himself an old WW1 trainer, an AVRO 504K, which he used for taking day-trippers on pleasure-flights along the North-East coast. It was in this aircraft that I gained my first experience of piloting an aircraft and I instantly fell in love with it. I was even allowed to take the occasional day-tripper up on my own when I was fifteen, and the rush of being in control of the aircraft all on my own cemented my desire to one day be a pilot. Little did I know that the opportunity would present itself sooner than I had anticipated, or, that the opportunity would be in the most important Battle of the war, in the skies above Britain.
It was mid-January, nineteen-thirty-nine, and I had been called to my interview in front of the Aircrew Selection Board in Doncaster. The interviews lasted almost two days, during which I was subject to a thorough, and intense medical examination, and a battery of intelligence tests. There was also an exacting eye examination and I was also tested for colour-blindness. I had been worried that my eyesight wouldn’t be up to scratch, but fortunately, I just scraped through and was passed as Medical Grade 1.
I left the Selection board clutching my papers and as I travelled home on the train I took the papers from the pocket of my jacket and looked again.
’Recommended for commission and training as PNB(3) ‘A’
Service Number 2091763. Rank AC.2 Medical grade 1’
I couldn’t believe it, I had passed and I was through to the next stage of training.
I got my posting a few days later. I had been posted to ‘No. 1 Air Crew Recruiting Centre at Lords Cricket Ground in London.’ I was to be there in three weeks.
I returned home to my parents’ house on the North-East coast of England where I had been born and raised, and lived all of my life up until now. I was the eldest of four children and the only boy. We were a very close-knit family, my three younger sisters and I spent a lot of our time growing up playing together, and it wasn’t until I entered my teens that I began to want to have a little less to do with them, and hang around with my male friends. But I loved them all dearly and it was a wrench when it came time to leave for my training.
There were tears, especially from my mother who didn’t want to see her son going off to war, and certainly not to fly aeroplanes, which she thought were more dangerous than any form of fighting.
Although my father was very proud of me, he was also scared for me, but he never let it show. He’d fought in the great war and survived the burgeoning new arena of conflict, in the air. Yet, he had never spoken of his years at war, until the night before I left for London.
We were sat in the snug of our local having the last pint together before I left. It was just the two of us, I’d said farewell to the rest of the guys that I knew and we were left to chat before we went home.
“Son. I need to tell you that it’s okay to be scared. There is no shame in being scared, the trick is, not to show it. I know that when you go into battle you will be on your own, in your plane, but there will be many hours, days even, when you will be sat around with your comrades, waiting for the next action. It is then that you will need to be strong, to let the others see that you are going to be ready for when it starts.”
“I saw men break. I saw men shake so much that they couldn’t stand up. They’d vomit just before heading out to their planes. God knows that I prayed every time I had to climb those ladders to get into my aircraft. I was terrified son, but I had to do my duty. And, I did. I saw many of my friends shot down or blown up most horribly. But once we landed, we reported in and then returned to our bunks to await the next action, and to see who hadn’t returned..”
I listened, I had never seen my father show as much emotion as he was displaying to me that evening. He leaned back in his chair and sighed.
“You will lose friends, lots of them. The machines that you fly now are faster and far more destructive than the ones that we flew. Sure, you have parachutes now, but it’s still a dangerous job. I know that you will do your best, you are a good pilot, and they will teach you everything that you need to know. Listen to them son, listen well. Don’t mess around, train hard and it will pay you back when you get up there for real.”
He lowered his head and was lost in his thoughts for a few seconds. Then he lifted his head and looked at me.
“I’m proud of you son. I wish you didn’t have to go, but I know that you have to. We both know that war is coming, just do your best. Just remember to write home to your mother regularly, she will need to hear from you, and make your letters jolly.”
And with that, we were done.
Basic Training - February 1939
It was February nineteen-thirty-nine and I was headed for London to complete my basic training. I had never been to London before and as I rode the train south it had the feeling of a holiday excursion, apart from the fact that the train was full of servicemen from all of the forces heading for training, or back to their camps after weekend leave.
When I arrived in London I was surprised by the size of it and how many people were out of the streets, going about their everyday business. There were obvious signs that there was a war on, shop windows were taped up to prevent flying glass in the event of a bombing raid, and as I drove through the city in a cab towards Lord’s cricket ground I passed lots of citizens walking around, all carried their gas-masks, hung around their necks.
When I arrived I was shocked to see the location of the ACRC, it was in the centre of London and I reckoned a couple of lucky bombs could have easily taken out dozens, if not hundreds of potential air-crewmen
I handed in my papers at the office and was immediately taken to the stores and was issued with all of my kit and my uniform. I gathered outside with the rest of the recruits and we marched, in a fashion, to our billet. What a sight it was. Young men, totally uncoordinated, trying to march in time with each other. I somehow managed to walk whilst carrying my suitcase that I’d brought with me, and two kit-bags, backpack, another pack which I carried around my neck, and my gas-mask.
I was exhausted and realised that I wasn’t as fit as I thought I was and was so glad that I hadn’t enlisted in the army, where I knew that there would be lots and lots of marching. All I had to do was sit in an aeroplane and fly it. Or so I thought.
I’d expected to be housed in barracks and was shocked to discover that we were housed in flats in a place called St. John’s wood. They were luxury flats that had been stripped of all of their luxuries, but it was so much better than being housed in wooden huts, and we had decent bathrooms and toilets and nice linen on our beds. We discovered that it was one of the perks of being aircrew and something that we never complained about. The rest of the day was spent introducing ourselves to each other and settling into our new accommodation.
Day two began with a compulsory haircut. No scissors, electric clippers and one style, short! I left the barber’s feeling very exposed and my head very cold. I looked ridiculous, but the good thing was that we all looked ridiculous, and apart from a few nurses, there were very few women to impress.
The food was excellent, another perk, it seemed, of being aircrew. But the discipline was something that I struggled with from the very start. On the second day, I left the mess and as I stepped outside I placed my forage cap onto my head right in front of the RAF Sergeant who was stood outside. He stared at me and ordered me to report for an hour punishment drill later that day for ‘appearing in public bare-headed.’ I’d taken one step outside of the mess before putting my cap on!
We were subjected to hours and hours of ‘square-bashing’, something that all of us recruits had hoped to avoid by joining the RAF, but it was compulsory and after a few days we soon got the hang of things and began to look like one unit, all moving in the same direction, most of the time.
I had never been a churchgoer, but I discovered that Church parade was also compulsory every Sunday. It served to boost the attendance of the local churches, and, It meant we got to see members of the public, and, more importantly, members of the opposite sex.
Next, we were thrown in the deep end, literally. Every recruit was required to swim at least one length of the local swimming pool. Anyone who couldn’t was given an intensive training course.
We also received a battery of tests to assess our fitness to fly, this included a quite bizarre night-vision test in which I was strapped into a chair with a collar strapped tight around my neck. I was then shown objects and shapes which flashed onto a screen in front of my which I had to identify. Why the collar I could never understand.
Three weeks later, it was late March and after passing my basic training I was posted to my ‘Initial Training Wing’ in Scarborough in North Yorkshire.
Almost as soon as I arrived I felt a little more relaxed, I was that much closer to home and in familiar territory, I had visited Scarborough many time with my family and had spent a couple of summer holidays there before the war. We were billeted in the ‘Prince of Wales hotel’ one of Scarborough’s best hotels.
The food was excellent because they had retained the original kitchen staff and chefs, but that was where the luxury ended. It was roll-call at oh-five-forty-five, breakfast at oh-six-fifteen, and parade at oh-seven-hundred hours.
Not bad you might think. But before I could go on parade I had to strip my bed and place all of my kit neatly at the foot of the bed. All my blankets, sheets, greatcoat, everything, and everything had to be folded square. I achieved this by inserting sheets of cardboard that I’d cut out into the front of each folded item.
We did our square bashing at the top of the cliffs and then march down to the Spa buildings at the foot of the cliffs for our lectures which were held twice a day which meant marching up and down the cliffs, often at double-time.
I had never been fitter in my life. We did physical training sessions of the beach, route marches, and cross-country runs. In the classrooms, we learned the principles of flight, navigation, Morse code, aircraft recognition, amongst many other things that we needed to know to be an effective pilot and member of the RAF.
Although there was no leave for the next three months, we were allowed to spend our free time in the evenings, or at weekends, exploring the local area, though many of us took that opportunity to rest and recuperate, or catch up on items of our studies that we might be struggling with.
In May, after passing the ‘initial training course’ I was posted to EFT in Brough, still in Yorkshire. We were stationed at a flying club and this was the first time that I got the feeling that I was in the Military. We were housed in Nissen huts at the end of the airfield and our lectures also took place in a series of Nissen huts dotted around the airfield.
We were straight into our training the day after we arrived. We began on Tiger moths, and most trainees would require about fifteen hours of instruction, I managed to persuade my instructor to allow me to go solo after four hours, due to my previous flying experience.
I was full of confidence as I set off on my first solo flight and managed to negotiate the tricky take-off from the grass-strip. There was a farm at the end of the runway with a large building close to the field that had to be avoided, which I did. But, on landing, we came in over the end of a cliff and pilots had to be aware of up-drafts, and down-drafts on approach. On my first attempt at landing, I was too cocky and came in too low and had to go around again. On my second run, I nailed it but had to face the wrath of my instructor who reminded me of the cost of the aircraft that I had been entrusted with. I never made that mistake again.
This was a crucial point in our training, after this, the group would be split into those who went onto pilot training, and those who went onto train as navigators and bomb-aimers. Thankfully I was one of the twenty-per cent who went onto advanced flying training, and one-step closer to becoming a fighter pilot and achieving my dream, of flying Spitfires.
For the next three months, I was involved in the most intense training program of my life. I loved the flying, I couldn’t get enough of it, but the daily classroom lectures from navigation exercises to the intricacies of the engines, superchargers and airframes were at times, almost too much for me. But I got through it, and my first flight in the most powerful aircraft so far, the North American Harvard was a memorable moment.
I also experienced my first night-flight and night-navigation proved to be a real challenge, but I managed to successfully find my way back to base, and land without too much of a bump.
Then the moment came when I was informed that I would be taking my ‘Wings’ exam the following day. I hardly slept as I tried to remember everything that I had been told and tried to ‘second guess’ what problems might be thrown my way.
It was a beautiful day as I taxied my Harvard along the grass strip towards the take-off point. I looked down the grass strip and waited for the green light. When it came I pushed the throttle forward and I was off. I had never been more relieved when hours later I shook my Squadron-leader’s hand as he handed me my wings, I had passed, I was a ‘real’ pilot at last. As I walked back to my barracks I stroked my fingers across the fabric wings that I had just received and knew that my training was about to step a notch, now I would learn how to fight.