Early R.A.F. Training
It is difficult, today, to describe wartime Britain to the present generation of streetwise cynics to whom the standards of that day seem to be so outworn. Perhaps we were idealists to a man (or woman) and gender had no place in the fight to the death with Fascism. We were all in it together and faced it together without question. I really think that we were happier and did not need 'political correctness', to underline our every action.
In England there was no need to question our duty. I had recently returned from Denmark where I had just escaped the Nazi invasion and was in a reserved occupation, being in horticulture (food production).
The Battle of Britain was hotting up and on the Sussex coast we were well placed as spectators.The vapour trails, each headed by tiny forms that sometimes glinted in the sun delineated every phase of the battle until the aircraft were down below the condensation level . I was later to learn how quickly one lost altitude on operations.
Often a German bomber would scream overhead, usually dropping it's bombs on any likely or unlikely target just to get rid of them before going over the channel. My poor old grandfather was becoming senile and looking up said "What is going on?' 'Who are they?" I told him the RAF was fighting German aircraft He said "What?' 'Germans? over here? Fighting our chaps ?" I assured him that that was the case. He was horrified and said "Surely they don't take such liberties as that?"
Our own High Command seemed hardly more sophisticated and seemed intent on fighting the last war. In the lulls I walked down the gutters of the greenhouses gathering the empty shell cases and spent .303 and 20mm shot. Surprisingly they seldom smashed the glass. At our other nurseries we were quite close to the wooden Radar towers at Poling. They were attacked by Stukas escorted by Messerschmidt 109s. One aircraft clipped one of the towers and crashed nearby. It was a Hurricane! Pilot got away with it. Not far away was Tangmere which was badly damaged.
We were given sadly inflated news of aircraft brought down and believed them.
We were working in the packing shed, packing boxes of tomatoes in light wooden boxes. A German bomber flew low overhead; everyone dived under the benches, one girl was standing petrified; I grabbed her somewhere near the neck and somewhere in the crotch and threw her under the bench. It had missed us but gouts of earth and smoke were rising not too far away. I grabbed my motor bike and was on the scene in moments. A similar range of greenhouses had been hit by a full stick of bombs. The owner who I knew well was staggering around, blood over his bare back, almost oblivious to the chaos around him. There was a bomb crater with a disemboweled corpse nearby with a terrified and motherless little Indian file of ducklings running in an endless circle through the guts. A man with ashen grey face was lying, head cradled in the lap of a young girl. I moved on to try to find someone more likely to survive. About two acres of wooden rafters, some with shards of glass still held in hardened putty. If it were not for the wreckage and the stink of explosives it was like any other day and strangely quiet apart from an occasional tinkle as more glass fell.
The wounds were not to be covered with 'elastoplast' or the equivalent at that time. They were often large and large dressings were required to staunch the blood. I did what I could but it seemed to be so useless. The ashen grey man was slowly moving his head from side to side. His white lips moved to say "I wish I had had my bloody rifle." Ridiculous? Yes. Most able bodied men were in the Home Guard and took their rifles home. His first moment of consciousness was 'To do something!'
To take on the Luftwaffen with an antiquated bolt action Lee Enfield .303 (He lived) I was proud of him and my countrymen.
The spirit of the people seemed invincible; the thought that our country could be overcome was incomprehensible. The TV series "Dad's Army" was quite close to the truth. I was drafted into the precursor to The Home Guard; The LDV (Local Defence Volunteers). It was enough to make one weep. We were issued with armbands; anyone with a shotgun could be sure of leading a section. I wanted to take my father's 12 bore but he would not have it and I felt that my little 410 was not likely to be admired. We drilled up on the South Downs where pylons connected by wire had been erected to deter gliders from landing. "Mr So & so. Are you sure that your heart will stand this?"
There was a certain amount of peasant cunning! There was only one road across the downs between Worthing and Shoreham-by-Sea and that was a chalk track hacked out of the hillside between Sompting and Steyning. What looked like water tanks actually contained oil and petrol. These were placed above the most precipitous stretch and of course the idea was to blow them up when the imagined panzer convoy was on it's way through. A little difficult to think of an encore though.
They were drilling with broomsticks in the first days. I had an old Standard 9 car with an allowance of petrol because I worked in the nursery 10 miles to the west but it was jacked up. I could get far more mileage on my motorbike, my pride and joy; a sprungframe S.O.S. 500cc. I was appointed dispatch rider. "What dispatches?" Bitterness flooded me. It was enough. Like so many others in the farming community my father had considered that 'our' life did not need a classical education and had discouraged 'learning beyond my needs'. This made it difficult to apply for aircrew even if I could be released. I was already about eighteen months older than required. The minimum educational requirements were for matriculation and I had left school before my sixteenth birthday.
Somehow I had to get into action and nagged the authorities into letting me go. That was comparatively easy. I filled in my RAF application and in the space for educational achievement I wrote "Matriculation standard" hoping that it would be taken as Matriculation which it was. The worst hurdle was to be the "interview". An intimidating row of officers. Did I really think that I would be more productive for the war effort in the RAF than in producing food? What did we grow? Mainly tomatoes and mushrooms as well as...............Things were not going well. They were not on my side. Then one said "Mushrooms eh?' 'tell me young man; what is a fairy ring?" I could have kissed him.
"Well Sir, a few mushroom spores may be carried with some manure in a hoof and those spores send out threads called mycelium covering some area.' (They were listening) 'When conditions are right such as a drop in night temperature small nodules form on the mycelium and these become mushrooms (God they are actually interested!) There are no more cells created from that time on and the fully grown mushroom has the same number of cells. When the little clump of mushrooms dies or is eaten the mycelium spreads further out, never inwards, forming an ever growing circle so some of the largest rings are some of the oldest living things. (Had I said too much, agony) "Thank you very much young man I have always wondered". (There was to be another occasion when I was saved at an inquiry.)
I was 'in', as a lowly AC2 but with a small piece of white material in my cap to show that I was an aircrew cadet. My first issue battle dress trousers puzzled me. The material seemed stiff in places particularly the left leg, several of us looked more closely. We found a repaired bullet hole. I felt sick; sorry for the poor devil who had last worn them but I just could not bring myself to wear them. I thought of telling my C.O. but took the bull by the horns and braved the ferocious Warrant Officer in stores. I was met by the usual contempt but to my surprise his face changed when he examined them. He slapped another pair on the counter and said "I hope you have better luck son". Bomber Command was insatiable in it's demand for aircrew but everyone of us wanted to fly 'singles' but I was sure no matter what!
I joined the endless lines of blue living in St John's Wood, sleeping on mattresses on the floor of the gutted flats and queuing endlessly. The longest of these were to eat in the canteen of the London Zoo in Regent's Park. We literally had to wait until the previous lot had eaten and our cries of "Why are we waiting" became ever more futile. One stopping place was by the hyena enclosure so I decided to *make friends* with one in particular. After a few days the damned thing was waiting for me and I reinforced our bonding with what I thought were appropriate gestures and grunts. It waited in the corner for me to appear and followed me across the cage as the queue moved on. I was much derided in the first place but it became quite a party piece.
We were bored to tears as the authorities sorted us into units to be posted for our first 'ground studies'. We were endlessly drilled by NCOs who left us in no doubt that we were the lowest of the low and to say we were shit would be a compliment. As potential aircrew we were drilled at the pace of the "Durham Light Infantry" the fastest in the army. This, was to sharpen our reflexes but also sorted out a few.
We also had the inevitable guard duties. Pubs in those days always had a small bar known as the "Jug & Bottle" as these containers were taken to be filled to drink at home. One night I turned up at the pub a little late, hopped up on the counter to have my water bottle filled with shandy. If I was lucky to meet the landlady it was 'on the house'. I had to run to slip into the rear rank as the Duty Officer inspected the guard. I cursed myself for being a fool; I could be chucked out if discovered. He walked down my rank as I tried to breath evenly. Just after he walked past me I heard a faint 'pop' in the darkness but did not move an eyelash. There was a millisecond hesitation but he carried on. He took the salute and left just as the beer foamed out of the water bottle and soaked the back of my trousers with the stench of beer surrounding me. It was water after that.
Then came the first posting to initial training in
Newquay where we were stationed
in the Beaconsfield Hotel which is still there.
The breakfast queue, Beaconsfield Hotel
Most of my companions were Grammar School and University students newly matriculated and my gaps were beginning to show. Working as one possessed I managed to keep out of the bottom third but only just. The training in meteorology, navigation, the theory of air gunnery etc: was of the highest standard and it is my firm belief, the best possible and stood us in good stead when the chips were down. The NCOs were, if anything, more contemptuous and wasted no moment in ramming it home. To be fair many of their victims were aiming to join the most envied group of young men in the Air Force and they took every chance to drive us hard. Physical Training was one thing that held no fears for me as I enjoyed it.
We were marched to a small field just outside the town, where we were drilled to exhaustion. Our particular corporal was very fond of dealing out "Jankers" to his charges. This meant that we were always cleaning out the hotel with mop and bucket. Free labour in endless supply.
On days when he had driven us very hard we all waited for his last order which was often "The last man with his feet on the ground is on a charge". This had us flying for the small stone walls surrounding the field. I, being the smallest cadet, always found myself in the centre of the front row by him when he gave this order. On the last day of our course it came --- I dived straight at him and he found himself flat on his back with my feet on his chest. Actually I had only meant to just put my legs around his waist but he lost balance. There was a deathly silence --- broken by a hoot of laughter by my compatriots from the walls. I looked down into his face and for a moment my future was in the balance. What charge would he make? He was winded at first but he finally saw the joke and to my surprise shook hands when we were posted.
Next stop was the last weeding before leaving for Canada. They had found that cadets who had done well in ground subjects were as likely as any other to fail on flying so we were shipped off for flying tests to a small airstrip, Stoke Orchard near Gloucester. The idea was to find aptitude (or not!) to reject unlikely candidates but not to fly solo.
So we had our first attempt at flying. The dear old Tiger Moths were ready and we met our first pilots.
Our first impression was that they seemed to ignore protocol in dress, rejecting the smartness that we had been told was so important. When wearing a tunic the top button was always left undone; a conceit that we followed as soon as we had won our wings. Wings seemed more than ever to be the Holy Grail.
Dispersal was a Nissen hut with a flimsy partition to give the instructors some little privacy. They needed it; they were all bored to tears and who could blame them. Their pupils were not even in kindergarten who they had to process as fast as possible and wait for the next lot. The first 'Flight' was acquaintance with the aircraft controls and taxiing around the field. Then the first real test came the next day with the flight commander.
This was yet another test that could make or break us. I had no idea how well or badly I had done, he said nothing. We walked into the hut in silence. He took off his white silk scarf and chucked it casually on a table as he walked behind the partition. I heard "How did he do?" With the cryptic answer. "Hands like silk, feet like lead." We all heard it and were probably meant to. We looked at the scarf (as was obviously intended); it was a pair of camiknickers complete with straps!
What did he mean? How could I make my feet like silk? We made a few more dual flights before joining 'the ship'. One or two left us at this stage and we were off to Canada.
We seemed for ever to be marching in columns, kitbags stuffed hard over our shoulders. As we were waiting I noticed that a group of four airmen of our rank but with shoulder flashes was given preferential treatment one of whom was a giant of a man. I glimpsed the shoulder flashes "Norway". We boarded and were taken below. The ship was an old refrigerated meat boat from the run to Argentina and we were to travel in the holds normally carrying frozen meat. The ventilation was hopeless and when it came to hanging the hammocks there was hardly the thickness of a hand between them. Since so many were seasick the squalor needs no description.
Out on deck I found that the Norwegians had bunks and the use of the sergeants mess!!! I had not so long before returned from Denmark and considered myself at least half Scandinavian. At that time most Norwegians spoke a language close to Danish. Nynorsk was almost a new language, used mainly on the west coast. The language was mainly to express Norway's independence and children were almost encouraged in their spelling mistakes. In 1939 my parents came to visit me and I took them on a wonderful trip through Norway and pointed out the road signs where 'School' was spelt in four different ways. I digress. God, do I digress but it was important.
I made myself known to the huge man who looked at me in amazement and then said "but you must come in with us". Easier said than done. When I tried to go below there was no space between the hammocks so I took to sleeping in a lifebelt box on deck. All went well with the five of us drinking in the sergeant's mess. It could not last! About half way across we were approached. There were five of us and there should only be four. My gigantic friend rose and told them that they had not come to fight for the allies to be insulted. His bulk won the day.
They were an incredible bunch. They had all fought for the resistance and had been in the same jail. One of them had vowed that when (not if) they got out he would seduce a woman on every floor of the flats just over the wall. He did and it delayed them but it also gave them a 'safe house' and made their captors look elsewhere. Looking at this sexual athlete it was not difficult to see why. I will never understand women----or ----men. Come to think of it what do I really understand?
It was wonderful to be speaking in my second language again but better was the stolen fruit of drinking in some comfort. We were challenged again but this time there was no escape and I was banished from the sergeant's mess. We still met on deck and they completely accepted me as a fellow countryman. I continued to sleep in the box on deck and watched the stars reel across the sky with the roll of the ship.
Canada and new surprises.
Next: - Early Canada
Previous: - A Youthful Prank
Edward Sparkes ©1998