My Time in the RAF by John R. Davies
I volunteered for the RAF in 1940 and soon found myself at the reception centre in Babbacombe, Devon. After preliminary medicals and lectures on hygiene etc. we were transferred to the Initial Training Wing at Torquay. We lived in a former holiday hotel and had our meals in a huge dining room elsewhere. The Duke of Kent came round (he was the Inspector General, I think) and we had a chicken salad that day, most unusual! The regime was all very military, with lots of drill and sentry duty. We tried the local Cider of course but I think that the instructors consumed much more than we did and used to come in late, abusing the sentry. I was then posted to 7 Initial Flying Training School at Desford, near Liecester. I had now reached the exalted rank of Leading Aircraftman and received the weekly wage of 28 shillings. With no overheads this went quite a long way. Pay parades took place in a hangar and were very formal. We stood in ranks and when one’s name was called, you shouted out the last 4 figures of your Service number, I can still recall mine – 1151428, one then marched smartly up to the paymaster’s table to be paid.
I learnt to fly on Tiger Moths, (DH82s). I took to flying straight away and loved it. There was one problem though, it took me a while to get the landing right but suddenly it came to me. My first flight was on 9th. September 1940 and my first Solo was on 24th after 12 hrs. 20 min. My instructors were Sgt. Fieldhouse and F/Lt. Bullmore, both regulars, of course. It was a thorough course with plenty of aerobatics, navigation, side-slipping and forced landing practice. It was magic, the only bit I didn’t like was spinning, with that sinking feeling and not being “in control” but most planes come out of a spin at once with the application of opposite rudder and stick forward!
I left Desford with the grand total of 37hrs. 40min. flying and was posted to RAF Hullavington, near Chippenham otherwise known as 9SFTS. This school still had Hawker Hart and Audax, bi-planes, they seemed huge after the Tiger Moth. They were started by a crank and flywheel system, which was effective but hard work for the ground crew.
They had a narrow wheelbase and a good landing without bouncing was a cause for satisfaction. They were easy to handle and fully aerobatic. The instructors were excellent. I particularly remember F/O Langley, he was an Auxiliary Officer and had been a barrister in peacetime. He was a very good and patient instructor. I seemed to do well and soon had a white flash in my cap as an Officer cadet, which meant living in the Officers’ Mess. I was a bit overawed at first as although one was treated quite kindly, we cadets still wore the rough ranker’s uniform and I think that some of the regulars did not approve of us
To offset the appearance of being smug there was an incident where I made an error, which I was lucky to survive without mishap. The radiator in the Hart was lowered in flight and when doing aerobatics, it had to be secured with a catch in case it fell back inside and burst. One day I had just got into the second quarter of a loop and realised I had not locked the radiator. Without thinking I pushed the stick forward which meant that I was hanging on the Prop. I went into a tail slide and fell out of the sky, the engine stopped and the cockpit filled with dust!
Anyway the nose dropped and luckily I had enough height to dive and get up sufficient speed to start the engine. I flew away a wiser pilot and I didn’t tell a soul. I can clearly remember my passing out test with the Wing commander during which he asked for a series of steep turns, which, although I say it myself were perfect! Before long I found myself going on leave in a new Pilot Officer’s uniform complete with Wings and a new number, 60107 I guess the fact that I seemed to have impressed the Wing Commander probably saved my life. I was to be kept in training command as an instructor and although I was not pleased at the time I did eventually get on Operations in 1943 when we had much more of an upper hand in the air.
On 24th January 1941 I took my first flight at the Central Flying School. Upavon had been an RAF station since WW1 and had a tradition of excellence, both in the air and on the ground. The Officers’ Mess, for example, had all the trappings of a long established Club including, silverware with huge covers for the joints, lots of silver cups and tankards and smart mess stewards to wait on one hand and foot. Salisbury was not far away and we used to visit the Cathedral Arms there when off duty Learning to be a Flying Instructor, though, was the purpose of my being at CFS. I must say that while, as always I enjoyed the flying, I did not take readily to the way that I was required to operate! When with a pupil one was supposed to keep up a continuous artificial “patter” and I was no good at this. In fact I had the gall not to agree with it.
There were of course some first class pilots there but I learned most from a few flights with Sergeant Puda, a Czech who had been a Regular in his own country. A marvellous pilot!
I passed out as a “below average” flying instructor, “by no means a finished instructor, will need supervision” and in any case with less than 200 hours to my credit I wasn’t exactly “experienced”! I was posted back to Hullavington at the end of March 1941 to be let loose as an instructor! The bi-planes had by now been replaced by Miles Master 1s, which were more suitable as trainers for modern aircraft. I soon developed my own style of instructing which I think was effective if unorthodox. The pupils were mostly LACs as I had been myself only a few months previously. There was, of course, a curriculum which we had to follow, I will not detail this as it included everything that could be done between and including, take-off and landing, (with the exception of tail slides!). It was quite demanding work as one always felt responsible for the pupils’ safety. First solos, night flights, aerobatics etc. were a source of anxiety and one always felt relieved when they landed safely.
There were, of course, accidents, which were usually fatal but I am happy to say that I never had a pupil killed. I did not use the “patter” but devised my own rather terse explanations together with demonstrations and plenty of practice. I found that discussions on the ground (with the usual gestures) were also very important.
I was a bit of a show off and was noted for my steep turns on take off and never knew why I was not pulled up for this. I also enjoyed low flying for which we had a designated area but there was one stunt that I did not encourage pupils to copy.
There was a wood with a straight edge and half way along was a green strip going in at right angles and I used to fly below the level of the trees to do a steep turn into this ribbon of grass, which required split second timing! We had a satellite field at Babdown Farm where night flying was carried out. I never really enjoyed night flying, preferring to see where I was going! There were accidents there to both pupils and instructors. F/Lt. Noddings was an ex civil pilot with 6000 hours to his credit but one night his aircraft flew straight into the ground and he was killed, with his pupil, in a flaming crash. It was thought that he was doing a practise overshoot and that his pupil lifted the flaps by mistake. I had a near miss one night. Weather forecasts were crude in those days and it happened that I went up first only to disappear into low cloud. We had no radio and once the flare path disappeared I was lost (the flare path was composed of a line of paraffin flares. These were wicks burning in the spout of things like a watering can, “goosenecks” they were called). So what could I do? To reduce height was asking for trouble, so I commenced a widening square search, hoping that I would find a break in the clouds but even then with the ”blackout” and a dark night there was not much hope! Eventually there was a clear patch and Lo there was a flare path.
It was Charmy Down, a night fighter base near Bath. I was very lucky to get away with that, especially as we suspected afterwards that we might have flown through the Bristol balloon barrage!
There were other accidents where people just lost control and crashed. At night it is essential to trust one’s instruments, as once they are disregarded in favour of bodily feelings you are dead. I suspect that the commonest cause of night crashes was when a wing dropped leading to loss of height, the stick was pulled back to correct and so on resulting in a steep diving spiral which could not be corrected in time. (Later on I had to investigate a Tempest crash where the plane had gone in vertically. It had been night flying. Why? There were, of course, accidents during the day, as well, the most common causes being, collisions, low aerobatics and flying in bad weather. A good friend of mine was killed in a collision. He was Mike Laughton, a short service commission regular, who had taken me under his wing. He had a girl friend called Rib Cracker White who was always looking for petrol coupons. We had some good parties and I missed him greatly. On another day I was standing in dispersal when I saw a collision between an Oxford and one of our aircraft flown by Sgt. Seda an experienced Czech instructor. The Oxford spun lazily down like a falling leaf, having lost the tail assembly and the Master dived straight in. All were killed.
On 31 May 1941 all the Hart and Audax machines were made ready for the last time and we flew them in tight formation to Cardiff where they were to be broken up. I remember it was a fine day and it was sad that there was no photographic record of this rather historic flight. I flew an Audax and I am glad to say that the last landing of this dear old veteran was perfect, without any hint of a bounce!
Sometime in July 1941 3 Hurricanes were allocated to us for airfield defence. This was an indication of how, already, aircraft production had increased so that these ‘planes could be spared from the front line All the instructors had a chance to fly them but unfortunately (or fortunately!) no intruders came our way.
Another hazard of instructing was when a pupil “froze”, this was rare but it happened to me once. I was demonstrating spins to a new pupil and the first time he tried the manoeuvre he froze. We were in a left hand spin and he was rigidly locked on left rudder!
We were only at 3000ft. so there wasn’t much time to talk him round. It became a test of strength and happily my sturdy legs won. His rudder bar broke and I was able to recover just in time.
The RAF was very flexible in allowing people to use aircraft for their own purposes as long as there was a reasonable “cover story”. In Training Command this was usually a “Navigation exercise”. On one occasion a pupil of mine who lived in Bude wanted to visit his parents. There was a small airfield there so off we went, unfortunately the weather deteriorated the further west we went and eventually over Dartmoor it got suddenly much worse and we were forced into a valley with cloud down on the hills on both sides. It would have been madness to try to turn or to go on so there was nothing for it but to climb. As I have remarked before I did not enjoy flying on instruments but previous training helped me to climb straight ahead (no turns for me while flying blind!) and what a relief it was to come out of cloud into sunshine at 6000 ft. I turned on a reciprocal until approaching base then let down through the cloud again (we still had no radios, so could not call in to ask for a course to steer!) How gloomy it was underneath, but it was good to see base just nearby. This episode could easily have resulted in a smoking wreck on the hillside if the wrong judgement had been made. Training and my guardian Angel saved the day.
I can’t remember the village of Hullavington at all. We used to go into Chippenham for our “relaxation” which took place mostly in the Bear Hotel There was a Café in the town called the Old Bakehouse where the most wonderful meals could be had for a very few shillings. Sausages, Bacon, Baked Beans, Eggs and fried bread. All that and no coupons! I had to walk back to base on several occasions, about 7 miles. There was a man in the village, who operated two taxis and must have made a fortune ferrying Air Force people back and forwards. A man of great power and he knew it!
There was a Maintenance Unit, too, at Hullavington and a Polish pilot tested their aircraft. He took me up once in a Hudson, a pot bellied aircraft used on Coastal Command and briefly as a bomber. I nearly died of fright when he proceeded to do stall turns in this cumbersome aircraft! I can’t remember his name. He had an artificial leg and liked nothing better than if someone apologised for knocking it. I sometimes wondered if he stuck it out on purpose so that he could have a good laugh!
In something over a year of service I had met and taught many people and when I look in my logbook and see their names, I remember very few faces. Some stand out like Jonesy and Mac. F/Lt. Jones, as he was when I met him, had been a Regular Warrant Officer pilot in peacetime. He had flown such legendary planes as the Woppati and was an excellent pilot. He was a flying instructor at Hullavington and later at Central Flying School. He was a stickler for discipline and could tear one off a terrible strip but was always fair and kind. He was also flexible and arranged for me to try out the Swordfish and Albacore aircraft, this was quite a common practice though quite unofficial.
Later on I was able to return the favour by taking a Tempest down to a Unit he was running (I think he was by then a Wing Commander) and let him take it up. He was a good influence on me and I always thought he was a great credit to the RAF. F/Lt. McCarthy was also an older man and had flown before the war. He was a model instructor and I learned a lot from him, not only about flying but he also took on the role of “Dutch Uncle”, which I needed badly at the time. His home was in Peterborough and he managed to get a posting there, but as will be seen I met up with him again later.
On the 28th August 1941 I was adjudged to be a flying instructor of “Average” ability! At this time I had amassed the grand total of 480 hours in the air! I quite enjoyed my time as an instructor. I did apply to go on operations regularly but was refused .I stayed at Hullavington until June 1942, when I was transferred to Peterborough to continue instructing on Masters.
I did not like Peterborough. We lived in huts and life was not so comfortable as in the well-established mess at Hullavington. The CO was one of the Old School, who liked his Officers to attend Dining In Nights. These were very formal what with passing the Port and toasting the King. The job was much the same, though, and it was good to see old Mac again. Some of the Masters (mark 2) had Mercury engines and others Wasps (mark 3), which were more powerful than the Kestrels. It has just occurred to me that maybe some of the Kestrels from the old Harts had been refurbished and put into Masters. While I was at Peterborough one of our instructors killed a woman farm worker. He had been doing unauthorised low flying over the Fens and it was thought that she stood up as the plane went over and the propeller struck her head. He was cashiered.
Some visits to London were made with chaps from the Station and we used to stay at the Strand Palace, Cumberland, Green Park and Oddenino’s, Hotels. There was a Chemist’s shop in Piccadilly called Perkins and if you went there in the late morning there would always be two or three RAF types sitting on stools looking the worse for wear. Perkins came to our rescue with a “Green Flash” or a “Brown Job” served in a Medicine glass, I think that the latter contained Bromide and was for the worst cases. No doubt the main ingredient was alcohol! Perkins also sold Benzedrene Sulphate and this would keep a chap going for the weekend without sleep. Many of us drank too much. I was lucky to suffer no ill affects probably because I was fond of food. For many years now my intake has been barely 6 units a week.
In October I volunteered to go on to Glider training and was posted to No. 1 GTS at Thame and then Croughton. I first had to learn to fly a glider. The Hotspur was only an 8 seater but quite good fun and I enjoyed my first cross-country flight. I was dragged up to 10,000 feet by a Master 2 and pulled the release. What peace and quiet! The thing you had to remember was that you had no engine! The Hotspur came down at 200Ft. per minute and flew at 80 mph, so a fine calculation was needed to bring one back to base with enough height to make a decent landing.
The Hotspur sat low on the ground, so that one could put on full rudder after landing and pull up in a very small space. I also did spells as a Tug pilot. It was a strange feeling having a rope and glider pulling on one’s tail. Again I quite enjoyed the flying but it was not a happy time generally. The CO didn’t like me and I didn’t like him! I had made a bad choice. The only good thing was that I and another chap were billeted in a pub in Thame. The Army people (“brown jobs”) were a good bunch and I didn’t envy them their eventual task.
At last in October 1943 I was posted to an Operational training Unit, 58 OTU at Grangemouth. I had recently topped 1000 flying hours and I suppose that I was now an “experienced” pilot! I did about 30 hours at OTU, quite varied and intensive. One morning early I was sent up to do a “height climb”. I got up to 33,000 ft. just as dawn was breaking. It was by far the highest that I had ever been and it felt strange as although there was oxygen provided through the face piece one’s voice sounded odd in the thin air. What was I doing talking to myself, with not another soul within miles? No, I was talking to ground control! (Radio at last!) As I let down into the dark I worked my jaw furiously to equalise the pressure in my ears, otherwise it could be quite painful. On landing and taxiing in, I had the rather weird experience of seeing the sun rise for the second time that day!
After some leave I joined 501 (County of Gloucester) Squadron at Martlesham Heath.
We did a few routine Convoy Patrols from there and after a few days were sent to Wood Vale near Southport, then to West Hampnett a satellite of Tangmere. In less than a fortnight we ended up at Hawkinge above Folkestone, on 21th June 1943. So these first few weeks with the Squadron were rather muddly. Hawkinge was an old established Station with a grass, slightly saucer shaped, field.
Our aircraft were Spitfire Vb LF’s with clipped wings and cropped super chargers (referred to as, “clipped cropped and clapped”). The reason for these modifications was, of course, to produce a good performance at low altitude. Later we had some Mark 9a and 9b machines as well. The reason for this mix was that we were known as the “Jim Crow Squadron”, because as well as normal sweeps and escorts, we were given other special jobs, including reconnaissance and searches of various kinds. I was eased in gradually to doing patrols and recces and I had my first taste of enemy fire on 27th June while having a look in Calais port. We were responsible for checking the Channel ports from Ostend to Dieppe on a daily basis. There were large concentrations of anti-aircraft guns at these ports and we gave them plenty of practice. It was not pleasant to be a target! The puffs of black smoke, flashes and the sharp explosion of the shells were rather frightening, especially when close, as it felt like someone was hitting the cockpit with a hammer. Tracer fire was strange, as it seemed to curve lazily up until it suddenly flashed past like lightning. We sometimes found smallish ships in the ports, from about 1000 to 4000 tons and then we took photos. The cameras were fitted in the fuselage looking out horizontally to the left, so that one had to tilt the aircraft to get a picture.
We did searches for the crews of crashed aircraft and for escapers from occupied Europe. The Air –Sea Rescue Walrus was frequently in use and if the sea was rough it had to taxi all the way back to Dover after picking up survivors, sometimes from near the French coast. We provided escorts for them, as the Germans did not like these activities. Those chaps did a wonderful job. When medium bomber squadrons (Mitchells, Bostons and Marauders) started raids over France we used to do weather recces of the target area and report back in plain language. This gives some idea of the air supremacy which prevailed, as we were rarely troubled by enemy aircraft. On a special weather Recce in September, though, I met 4 Me109’s at 15000 ft. over Merville. I managed to shake them off but got hit in the process. I can’t say that I damaged any of them for sure.
The Flak was always there, though and I hated it. I can never understand how the Bomber Command crews stood up to the intense Flak and night fighter attacks, which they had to endure every night on their raids. They suffered 80,000 casualties!
A member of a bomber crew was lucky to get through a tour of 30 Ops, whereas a fighter pilot was unlucky if he did not get through a tour. This does not apply, of course, to the battle of Britain when losses were high. I knew 3 bomber pilots all of whom had been at the Grammar school. Tiggy Dolman, Glyn Davis and Sid Spooner. Tiggy was a farmer’s son and a very burly chap. He could carry a hundredweight sack under each arm and walk with them! He survived the war as a Wing Commander but died quite young of Cancer. Glyn also got though the war and I did meet him once during the war as mentioned and once afterwards. He told me that after an early bombing raid on a German city, in which he took part, Intelligence had told them that 400 people had drowned in a cellar as a result.
I cannot say that I hated the Germans although I knew intellectually that they had done some terrible things and had to be stopped. We did a certain amount of ground attack (straffing) and I always worried about this because of the likelihood of what is nowadays called “collateral damage” in other words death or injury to innocent persons. Train straffing was a particular worry in this respect and I suppose that I had too much imagination. I certainly had not got the aggressive dash of some outstanding pilots.
I suppose that if I had taken my thoughts to a logical conclusion I should have been a conscientious objector but I didn’t have the courage needed for this and anyway, the glamour and joy of flying, together with the need to win the war made that an unrealistic choice.
The Free French, Polish, Belgian and Czech airmen had good cause to loathe the enemy and were always prepared to take great risks to get at them.
We had several Free French pilots in the Squadron and one, Captain Fuchs, who was my Flight commander, taught me the rudiments of Bridge. He was an excellent player and told us that, one day he had been playing in a prestigious London Club. He agreed to stakes of half a crown and when he and his partner won was handed a cheque for several hundred pounds. They had been playing for 2/6 a point not per hundred as he had thought! If he had lost he could not have paid, and would have been in disgrace. Our CO was Gary Barnett, a New Zealander, who was a good leader and stayed with us until July 1944. He was popular in the Mess and in the air. He was somewhat shy and even blushed sometimes but a real “good type”.
The Spitfire was a bad plane to ditch as it went straight under, so we were advised to bail out if in trouble over water.
This didn’t help one of our chaps in mid winter, his engine failed over the channel and he duly bailed out, he was waving on the way down but never got into his dinghy. One could not expect to live more than a few minutes in that cold sea.
The 21st. December 1943 was a lucky day for me. We were escorting a wing of Marauder bombers, when we saw some U.S. Thunderbolts coming up behind us and before we knew it we were under attack, my No.2, PO Griffiths, went down and I was hit in the wing. It gave me quite a scare as I was almost out of control. The only way I could keep my port wing up was to wedge my arm from elbow to wrist, between the side of the cockpit and the stick. As I limped out over the French coast machine gunners opened up and put 4 bullets through my Perspex cockpit cover! Anyway, I managed to get back to Hawkinge (the nearest field anyway) The Thunderbolts score that day was 2 Typhoons, 2 Spitfires downed and 1 Spitfire damaged (me). It wouldn’t have been so bad if we had not seen them coming! I can’t think why they fired on us as they could see that we were flying alongside the bombers and not molesting them!
So this is what we did for 10 months at Hawkinge. Sweeps, escorts, shipping and weather reconnaissance and searches, plus the occasional Rhubarb, which was a sortie (usually of 2 aircraft), into France under cover of low cloud, looking for any suitable targets. Once, returning from a mission we saw a Lancaster on the Goodwin Sands and the crew were playing football. I hope they got picked before the tide came in. Another time I was sent to escort a Flying Fortress that was in trouble. It managed to get most of the way across the Channel but had to ditch off Dungeness, where the crew were all picked up by boat. This may have been after the Sweinfurt raid when a lot of Fortresses ran out of fuel. One of our pilots “Stocky” Stockbridge was shot down over France and it wasn’t until 2 months later that we knew what had happened when he walked into the Mess. He had been picked up by the resistance and taken down the escape route to Spain. He had found the “escape kit” very useful.
We carried this on every trip over the enemy coast and it contained, currency, compass, water purifier tablets, map (on silk), Pep Pills (Benzedrine), a shot of Morphine, Horlicks tablets and chocolate.
There was usually lots of Flak from the ports and from sensitive places inland, such as Airfields. We must have cost them thousands of shells in the time that the Squadron was at Hawkinge. It was strange how deserted the ports always looked, nothing moved but you knew that there were people just itching to shoot you down! Then, Bang, the Flack started and one always ducked as a reflex, which was of course a useless reaction. I seem to have gone on a bit about Flak but it did leave a deep impression, fortunately though, for me, not in the physical sense!
I see from my Log that on 24th September 1943 I flew to Watchfield. This field was only a mile or two from Shrivenham and I remember borrowing a bike and cycling down to see my Great Uncle Leonard, who farmed at Cowleaze. After take-off I flew low over Cowleaze Farm and Uncle was standing in the field below the farmhouse waving his handkerchief.
A good deal of off duty time was spent in the Mess, as most of us were broke by 10th of the month (when Mess Bills were due) in any case! We played shove-halfpenny, billiards and Bridge. There was always Service transport to the nearest town and some Officers had cars. While at Hawkinge we used to go to the Leas Cliff dance hall and Bobbies, not that I could dance but sometimes I thought I could after a few drinks.
There was always someone in the Mess and the Bar was open quite late. “Parties” often developed for no particular reason and traditional Mess “games” were played, like going round the room without touching the floor or “hicockalorum”, which required about half a dozen chaps to make a “horse” so that others could take a running jump and land as far along as possible, until the horse was “full” or collapsed in disorder. Another occasional activity was “footmarks across the ceiling”, which was achieved by piling the furniture high to allow one chap to place inky bare feet on the ceiling. Needless to say this was greeted with great disapproval by the Mess authorities. The most dangerous activity was that of taking a running jump, twisting in the air and landing seated on the mantelpiece. The whole assembly was of stone so it was a wonder that no- one was seriously injured.
The pre-war Messes were very comfortable and usually one had a room to oneself with a batman (or bat-woman) shared with a few other Officers. The food was good, as there were usually long standing contacts with local suppliers. At Hawkinge we were fortunate to get a barrel of Dover Sole every week, this was donated by the local fishermen after the Squadron had chased off some FW190 raiders who then dropped their bombs in the sea instead of on the town. On 5th May the Squadron moved to another and smaller, grass field, behind Beachy Head, called Friston. We had our Mess in a large country house at Alfriston.
In early 1944 we saw evidence of a build up to invasion and there were rumours galore. D-day came at last on 6th. June 1944 and early that morning we were over the Beachhead in the dark, which wasn’t much use. This flight is mentioned in “Aircraft for the Many”, by Michael J F Bowyer, because Spitfire J for Johnny, which I was flying, had the service number X4272. It was a Battle of Britain veteran.
I took part in 2 hours long, beach and convoy patrols for this and the following two days. We got some heavy Flak from the Royal Navy as well as the Germans and on 8th the Squadron had a brief brush with some Me109’s. One attacked me head on and I gave him a squirt but saw no hits. Our chaps got a couple of “probables”, I think. It’s strange that one moment there are a dozen aircraft milling around and the next one is alone in the sky!
On 12th.June the Squadron landed in France at San Crois de Mer, B3 Airstrip . The field was a runway of Pierce Steel Planking, which made an awful noise on landing but was a very ingenious and quick to install, converting soft fields into safe landing strips. We stayed overnight and were fed by the Army. I recall the pleasure of eating Bully beef and freshly baked bread in the open air. We didn’t sleep much as what with the big ships’ guns, bombing and incoming shells, there was a terrible noise going on.
I took off on a sweep from Friston on 13th and we had just formed up and set off across the Channel when my engine cut, clouds of white exhaust indicated an internal Glycol (coolant) leak. Fortunately I had some height (1500 ft.) and decided to try to glide back. I just managed to get over the cliff, cleared the airfield fence and threw C for Charlie downwind and wheels up, on to the field.
On 3rd. of July we moved to W. Hampnett again. We were to reform and convert to Tempest V’s. We continued doing sorties with Spitfires until 26th. July, but were becoming familiar with the Tempest at the same time. A very sad incident occurred at this time. Redge Farrow, who had been at the Grammar School with me, and Pete Beloe, were with the Squadron until a few weeks before. They had finished their tours and gone to non- operational postings. However, they visited the Squadron on 12th July were permitted to go on an Operation. They were both shot down over the battle area. They are buried at Douvres, Calvados. Redge left a young wife but fortunately no children. I had met up with Redge on leave, once or twice. He was a good chap. I don’t know what happened about this “illegal” flight, but I note that they are listed in the War Graves Register as being with 501 Squadron.
The Tempest V was a marvellous aircraft, larger than the Spitfire but very manoeuvrable. It had 4, 20mm cannon and so was a formidable gun platform. It was fitted with a Koffman starter, which I had not come across before. A cordite cartridge was fired by pushing a button and the resultant gases drove a piston, which turned the engine fast enough to start it. The Tempest was quite fast for those days, achieving over 430 mph at 12,000ft, straight and level.
I flew to Boreham in a Tempest, I think it was on the 8th. September 1944. It is only a couple of miles from my home in Springfield, Chelmsford and again I was able to borrow a bike, from a Yank this time. A very brief call on Mum and Dad but I flew over quite low afterwards and saw them in the garden. The Control Tower staff at Boreham asked me to give them a buzz which I did, coming from behind at 500 mph on the clock and down to 0 feet. I hope they enjoyed it!
The Squadron, which had reformed as 274, became fully operational on 11th August 1944. At first we were employed on anti-Buzz bomb patrols at which we had little success, but gradually we were used on ground attack in Holland and on 17th August we covered part of an Airborn invasion going in over Holland. We were supposed to neutralise Flak around Schouen Island, fortunately there wasn’t any.
It was good to see all the Dutch people out waving flags, they must have realised that it was the beginning of the end. I was leading the Squadron that day and had done so several times as one could not expect the C.O. to fly every mission. I did lead the Wing once when the C.O. of the other squadron had to turn back with engine trouble. It was a day when nothing should have been flying, the cloud was very low and visibility less than half a mile, which at 400 mph is not comfortable. We could not reach the target and I aborted the mission in deteriorating weather, and I was glad that my navigation brought the Wing back right over base.
On 29th September the Squadron joined 83 Group, Tactical air Force, based first at Antwerp. The new CO (I have not mentioned Garry Barnett’s departure, he went on “rest” when we left UK and was very much missed.) took us on a Sector Recce at 1000 ft, which in my opinion was asking for trouble and sure enough we got lots of light flak and F/Sgt. Carn was shot down. He is buried at Oosterbeek War Cemetery, Arnhem. We then spent a week at a makeshift grass field at Grave before moving to Volkel. The other Flight Commander, a good chap who kept us in stitches with his stories and impressions, had a taxying accident and was immediately sent back to UK. This was an unusual field as the runway was built completely of bricks. We were billeted in a Seminary, which was probably not very appropriate. We saw Me210 aircraft but could not catch them and my last month with the Squadron was fairly quiet apart from a few ground attacks, such as Osnabruck airfield.
One of our Free French pilots Capt. Vaissier was shot up and crash-landed at base. His hand was severed in the crash and when being stretchered away he asked someone to go back and look for his wrist- watch. He was a very decent chap, popular in the Squadron and I remember he came from Besancon. My last operational flight was on 21st of October.
I was asked by the Group Captain if I wanted to stay with TAF and I thought that it would be more interesting than UK, so, after a week’s leave I was posted to the Communications Squadron, then at Eindhoven.
The Aircraft were Austers, with 2 seats side by side and an “occasional” cramped seat behind. They were quite pleasant to fly and had a short take-off and landing run. It was quite a varied job. A lot of the work was routine carrying of mail and personnel (mainly Army) to and from HQ and landing strips near the front.
Then there were flood recces, some too close to the enemy for comfort. This was to do with the fact that the advance had been held up by flooded rivers. The Ardennes battle took place that winter and with captured fuel the Germans were able to mount a considerable air attack on New Years’ morning. They caught us on the hop and did quite a lot of damage. There was nothing we could do but cower in our slit trenches!
I spent a period of detachment to the 12th Army Group Engineers. CO, Col. Tuck. January to June 1945. They were responsible for reconnaissance and later repair of recently captured airfields. Sometimes we went by air and sometimes by Jeep. The air trips were usually with Col. Tuck or Maj. Maud as observers. I first landed on German soil on 27th Feb.1945.
The Jeep trips were with Capt. Harley who was a good companion and very decent chap. It was a bit scary at times what with landmines and German guns.
Once on a Jeep trip we came under accurate fire from a 105 mm gun and I didn’t like it at all! I had some interesting times, saw how the Army lived and met some interesting characters. One of these was a Tank Corps Captain who let me drive a Comet tank, which I enjoyed but he kept pressing me to get him a flying jacket, which I did eventually. In one village an Army chap showed me a fat land mine sitting on a chair behind a door, with a wire attached. I did not make a note in my log but sometime in early ’45 I flew over Belsen concentration camp and at low altitude it was possible to see the open pits full of bodies. I remember there was the corpse of a large man on top of one pile and I wondered who he was and what had brought him there. During our recces we saw many recently captured villages and the apparent delight of the people in being “liberated”. When the advance units of the Army were held up by mines or 88’s we sometimes caught up with them. The “front” was moving very fast and it was clear that the war in Europe was nearly over, so by the end of May my time with the RE ended. I had 5 days leave in UK travelling both ways by Dakota and returned to the Comm. Squadron at Schleswig.
I suppose that I was the most experienced pilot on the squadron and although many flights were routine I did get some interesting jobs, like fetching replacement Spitfires for operational Squadrons (I don’t know why they couldn’t do it themselves) and ferrying VIPs to and from HQs. Gen. Roberts had done some flying some years ago and I was able to get a duel control Auster for him to practice on. There was also our Danish connection. The Germans had of course occupied Denmark but had only taken their produce so that at the end of the war there was food and drink in plenty. I had several trips to Denmark with various Control Commission and Intelligence people. We also took part in flying down an assortment of captured aircraft.
We had a wonderful time there when off duty and I loved their open Sandwiches and Schnapps, the girls too were very appealing. In Copenhagen I met Lt. Eric Testrup who was in the King’s Guard and he showed us the town and the Tivoli Gardens, a sort of permanent Fair and amusement park. (The King’s Guard were rudely referred to as the “Tivoli Guards”). I also met up with “Tiny” Kjeldbek, another Dane, who had been in 274 with me. (He had been a Planter in Malaya before the war) We had the whale of a time and visited Elsinore among other places. The German HQ had been at Grove and one day I had to take up a Gestapo photographer to get pictures of it from the air and I wondered what horrors he had seen in the past, although, like most Germans he was very pleasant to talk to.
The European war was over by now and although there was a big party at Luneburg (where I was at the time) it seemed a bit of an anti-climax. That night there was a lot of drunken firing-off of all types of weapons but strangely there were no accidents. I was briefly attached to the Control Commission in the shape of a F/Lt. whose name escapes me (I’ll call him Mike). We went to the Island of Syllt where he was responsible for “Government”. He soon acquired a Mercedes-Benz, which we used for duty and pleasure. There was of course a Non-Fraternisation Order in place but it wasn’t enforced on the Island! We used to go midnight bathing in the nude as was the custom there and there were high jinks. One night going back to quarters Mike rolled the Merc on the perimeter track while trying to negotiate a bend. Not a scratch on us but another car was required! I was back and forth to Syllt many times and have happy memories of the Island.
We acquired a German Fiesler Storch for the Squadron. It was so named because of the long under-carriage legs. The Storch was a spotter plane and could land and take-off in a very short space, great fun to fly. I also flew the ME 108 the forerunner to the Me109.
Right from the time we landed in Normandy many people had taken advantage of the various shortages on the Continent. Cigarettes and coffee were the main currency and the smell of Camembert pervaded some aircraft, exotic cheese and good brandy was, of course, in great demand in UK. I have never been much of a “business man” and while others were making money, I used to give away most of what commodities I brought back from visits home. Once I took a chicken and a huge jar of cod liver oil and malt to a girl who sang in the Lido Night-Club in Antwerp, she was a bit puzzled by the latter. Cigarettes went to an elderly Belgian couple who had been very hospitable to several of us. Some unscrupulous members of the Forces used to sell Military fuel to the locals and some of the cans were three quarters full of water, the fuel of course floated on top and so the fraud was not detected until later. When the war ended I knew of very senior officers who used aircraft like the Junkers 252 to fly home cars, pianos and other valuable items, which they had “liberated”.
We all heard of the Atomic Bomb being dropped in Japan. I had, as a Science Fiction fan, been aware of the potential of this weapon for years and felt a sense of foreboding rather than satisfaction.
I was due for Demob in March but had not got a clue what I was going to do in “Civvy Street” so I signed on for a further 6 months. Although I still enjoyed flying, service life was returning to peacetime ways, with parades and “bull” creeping in. There were, I believe, various courses on offer to ex-service people but I cannot recall hearing about them. The RAF was beginning to shrink to peacetime proportions and those leaving were not replaced.
During my last few months at Schleswig I was Transport Officer, (which had it’s perks in the shape of a personal Jeep) and Officer i/c the Sergeants’ Mess. One of my responsibilities was winding up the latter and doing the final accounts. We were surprised to find that there was an enormous surplus of cash, with which we organised a bumper station party! My final Station was at Celle and some of us travelled there by train to join 84 Group Comm. Squadron. The journey was smooth and quick in spite of all the attacks the network had suffered (please note, BR) With hindsight it was a mistake to extend my Service, as apart from the change in atmosphere there was a lot of drinking, probably through boredom and loss of purpose.
There were episodes of silly behaviour too, for example, my friend “Stew” Stewart and I were walking back to quarters from the Mess past the swimming bath when he suddenly took a running dive into the deep end. Fortunately for him the ice was quite thin but he was sober when I pulled him out! My last couple of months’ flights were nearly all concerned with taking Generals and Group Captains all over Germany. Although I see that on August 30th I fetched a Spitfire Mark xvi from UK and flew it to Eindhoven. My last flight as a Pilot was on 17th September 1946, when I took Gen. Galloway in Auster 471 to Hildescheim and Hamburg/Fuhlsbuttle. In six and a half years I had amassed a grand total of 1893 hours as a Pilot. It all seems a long time ago and it is. Apart from poor hearing and a few creaks here and there I am fortunate to be quite fit. I did join the 501 Squadron Association but there is not a soul on the list whom I would know except Dudley Moore who was an Aircraft fitter at Hawkinge. This makes me think of the wonderful support we always had from the ground crews, men and women and indeed all staff, medical, intelligence mess and so on, on every Station. I have been in touch with Dudley several times but although we have wanted to meet he has been very ill with cancer and died in 2008. Many people from the old days are dead and there must be very few left.
There followed a return to UK by ship to Harwich and a brief visit to the Demob Centre at Cardington. So there I was “on the beach” naked except for my Demob suit and around £200 Gratuity, I had suddenly lost the safe, albeit sometimes dangerous, cocoon which I had known from the age of 18 to 25.
Emigrated to S. Africa in 1946, trained as a mining engineer and worked in the Gold mines and then in the N. Rhodesian copper and uranium mines. Returned to UK with wife and 3 children, in 1959.
Trained as a Probation Officer, Managed a team and retired in 1986 I have lived in Reading for 40 years.
Text and photos:
John R. Davies