Training Course, Eshott, Northumberland.
2 Canadian, 1 RAF
Officers. Remainder Sergeant pilots, mostly RAF, but good sprinkling
of Poles, Free? French, Canadians, Norwegian, Czechs etc.
A letter home dated Thursday 1st March 1943 on arriving at my O.T.U
arrived in Eshott, north of Morpeth Northumberland. Am even further
off the map than when I was @ Watton. There is a lot of Bull here,
everyone is on their toes to salute and we get periodical parades. I
do not think much of that side of it. Being new I am without friends
as yet but am in no hurry until I can see the lie of the land. We are
four to a nissen hut with a stove in the centre which is lighted
about 4 pm.
certainly going to keep us busy. We work literally from dawn to dusk
and for the first three weeks there is not one hour free. Beyond that
I have no idea as the orders have not been posted. The food here is
truly excellent. A very unusual mess in that respect. These Spits are
wizard kites and I enjoy being here and being among the chaps who
have done the work in the famous tussles."
I notice with some
amusement, that throughout my letters home I do not mention girls.
Perhaps this was a defense against this information being passed on
to any girl who may phone my parents. Mothers have an uncanny ability
to manipulate sons' lives. A girl who may be a ball of fun could well
be regaled with elaborated stories that would be the end of a
beautiful friendship. Neither did I mention that my batman was an
attractive WAAF. Not exactly true because at this station a batman
served two officers.
Not that girls could
compare with my new love. I was in love with a machine but what a
machine. Spits are so beautiful. We were introduced quite early but
before flying one there were so many tests and examlets and the
bullshit was endless. We knew that if we fell at this fence we should
be shunted to something else. Met the C.O. for the first time in the
mess. He was short and tubby but as taught as a set mousetrap. Little
black eyes, never at rest, flamed from a putty coloured face. Sitting
in his chair, his feet twisted round the back of the chair legs as
though he was controlling a fractious animal, he was a fascinating
study of restrained violence, punching the air with a stubby
forefinger to emphasize every word.
I had just met another
new pilot at the bar and we started talking to one another in self
defense. He was, if anything, a little too smartly turned out with a
languid air that I opined could be infuriating. We took our beers to
the fireplace. We had hardly turned around when the C.O. ignored me
and came straight to the point with the chap I was talking to.
"So you are married!" "Yes Sir. "Well you should
not be flying fighters -- and -- by the way what is that stuff you've
put on your hair.' 'If I went home smelling like that my wife would
think that I had been in a brothel!" Instead of quailing before
the out-thrust chin the intended victim looked at him calmly and said
"My wife does not know what a brothel smells like sir." He
turned to me and said "I shall not be in for dinner tonight"
and walked out of the mess. The C.O. also left. I did not see the
young officer again. Dinner was a strained affair. I had made a bad start.
Ground studies the
following morning and we learned the general outline of our
programme. --- We were to be issued with our "escape kit"
which comprised, among many other things, compasses in every
conceivable form. They, with one exception, just indicated the
position of magnetic north. There were needles to be floated on
water, as were our identification discs, the hole of which turned
north. Buttons to be sewn into the flies of our battle dress
trousers. They had a slight dimple in the centre so that they could
be balanced on a pencil or equivalent; a minute nick in the edge
acting as the pointer. A more sophisticated job was the collar stud.
(Yes. We wore separate collars!) Scraping off the white covering on
the base revealed a perfect little compass.
The heliograph was
beautifully made of a square of metal with rounded corners. It was
about 90mm square and very highly polished, with a hole drilled in
the centre. Two etched double lines intersected the hole at right
angles and a white painted "lollipop", also with a hole in
the centre was attached by a cord about 40cm long. By looking through
the hole in the mirror and reflecting the lines on the mirror onto
the hole in the "lollipop" a signal could be sent to, say,
any overflying plane. Very simple but very efficient.
Then there was the bar of
soap. After being used a couple of times it became a wonderful hiding
place for what looked like a wire about 20cm long with a key ring at
each end but was, in fact, a very efficient hacksaw. Looped around a
bar, padlock hasp or whatever it would cut through quickly and
without squeaking. Then there was the Commando dagger. Beautifully
made and very unlike the pretty imitations. It was made to be hung
from the belt but I cut a slit in the bottom of my battledress
trousers for the sheath to be sewn flush so that the handle would be
concealed in the pocket and ready for instant use.
There were 'iron rations'
in flat tins, aspirins, water treatment tablets that made water
nearly undrinkable and bandages. Very imaginative were the plastic
bags liberally powdered with sulphanilamide to protect burned hands.
There seemed to be no end to it. Our 'Teddy Bear' fur flying boots
were to be replaced with fur lined boots with leather soles. The tops
were made to be cut off, leaving quite presentable black leather
shoes. Oh! Yes and a knife to do the job. The old ones simply
screamed "Shot down aircrew" and were useless for prolonged
walking. There were plenty of battledress trousers being worn by
civilians in France and the Low Countries left behind after Dunkerque.
Part of the "Commando Course" at O.T.U.
"Several ways of crossing a river."
We had training sessions
from Army Commando officers who took us through exercises in
survival, crossing rivers, camouflage etc: etc: As may be imagined,
they were proud of their abilities and did not let us off lightly. I
put in my remarks "Good but hardly testing". One thing of
vital importance was the use of oxygen. More health checks to make
sure once more that there was nothing that could hinder flying in any
extreme condition. We were introduced to the decompression chamber.
Half of us had oxygen masks and the others were the guinea pigs. The
position was to be reversed at a later date. As the air was pumped
out a large altimeter gave a good idea of when and how the body
reacted to altitude. The main object of the exercise was to drive
home the insidious effect of lack of oxygen. Oddly enough it behaved
exactly like the results of drinking alcohol. There was in increasing
(very unjustified) self confidence and the slightest thing reduced
those without masks to fits of giggling. Some of them had combs put
into their hands and others pens. In the early stages they wrote with
the pens and combed their hair with the combs but as the 'altitude'
increased, hair was combed with pens and messages written with combs.
As each man became unconscious he was put in an oxygen mask which
quickly reversed the symptoms. We were all quite shaken by the false
confidence brought about by anoxia. It was one of the most telling
exercises for us all.
When we were deemed fit
we were examined for
1. Knowledge of Spitfires.
2. Handling the radio.
3. Cockpit drill and
4. Oxygen system on Spitfires.
5. Readiness to fly Spitfires.
Each certificate was
signed by the relevant officer and the whole pasted in the logbook. *Full
certificate at end of chapter.
It was nearly three weeks before I actually flew one!
Hear THAT sound!
On April 16th I was taken
up for a test by one of the instructors in a Master. He must have
been satisfied because the whole flight was 20 minutes after which he
sent me off on my own for about an hour in the same aircraft. Two
days later we spent 40 minutes on aerobatics and spinning and later
that day I was taken up for an hour in a Domine and shown the main
navigation features in the vicinity. The next day the Flight
Commander came out with me to my first flight in a Spit. The first
thing was the step up on to the wing root. No climb like the Harvard
or the Masters, just a step up. He watched me make my cockpit check
and yelled "Know what you are doing?" Chute on, straps on,
oxygen plugged in, radio in. A last look around the instruments.
Harness lock on. Thumbs up and off. This was a Spitfire II (they were
kind on the first flight) on Spit Is, one had to pump up the
undercart by hand. She was a little gem. Messages from my training
kept filtering into my mind.
to view the
of the Spitfire I
Handle carefully on the
ground, the wheels are so close together because they retract from
the centre outwards. She handled well; full left rudder and a blip on
the throttle headed her into wind. A quick look around and ...full
throttle. Oh God! I love you. Hold her down, she is coming unstuck,
airspeed OK , gently back on the stick and she soared away. It was
like having the most powerful motor bike in creation between one's
knees but in three dimensions. Everything was wonderful. I owned the
world. 10,000ft already! Wizard! 1,200 Horsepower of Merlin was
almost idling. Holy Island below. A few rolls, stall turns etc:
...quick glance at my watch (A present from my parents "Ad
Gloriam per Spinas" [To Glory through thorns] my old school
motto engraved on the back)
"I have certainly
been through thorns for you my little Darling!"
It was only to be an hour
and it had drifted away. Into the circuit, dropping down, flaps out,
keeping an eye over the port wing root along the engine, bringing her
to stalling point and at the last moment straightening her out. She
was perfect. A few bursts of throttle brought me onto the perimeter
track. The engine seemed huge as I zigzagged along, eyes first to one
side, then to the other back to dispersal. Nothing! Nothing had gone
wrong. Never had I felt so much 'one' with an aircraft. I loved her.
Flaps up, quick blip, throttle closed, switches off, the prop flicked
to a stop, pull out the pin holding the harness, unplug radio and
oxygen; helmet off. Turn the wheel on the chute, give it a bash and
the straps fall away. Just a few moments to enjoy that lovely smell.
It must come from the bindings on the electric harness but put me
blindfold in a Spit cockpit and I will tell you where I am.
here to view the Proficiency Certificate.
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