Tommy Smith wrote a journal documenting his training in Canada. In 2011 his son Peter had shared the journal in text format. With Peter’s permission this is the first of 95 pages.
Courtesy Peter Smith
When looked at retrospectively, my entry into His Majesties Forces was bizarre in the extreme. Its most outstanding feature was the difficulty which attended my many and complex approaches at every point, and which made it seem to me that I was attended by some guardian sprite who refused to let me leave my civilian life.
Firstly, some months before the war, I, like everyone else in the land, began to sort out the various forms of Services to be rendered to a country rallying her forces for a yet unhinted struggle.
I passed up the Fleet Air Arm, R.N.V.R. idea, as the 18 months of training would have unsettled me in my accountancy student career most seriously. I therefore wrote to the War Office, asking for a consideration for a commission in the Supplementary Reserve of Officers, if possible in a Cavalry or Mechanised Cavalry unit.
Working from this extreme range however, I got so entangled in the famous Army red tape, which I did not understand, that it was many weeks before I had been fully investigated, and by that time there were so many better applications that mine was suddenly dismissed.
So I contented myself with joining the OCR and badgering the RAFVR to put me on the waiting list. It took me three weeks of calling and phoning to get on the list, [the Central Airport VR refused me admittance] and the War immediately broke out and the VR waiting list was torn up.
I had by now decided to go on with my studies for 2nd Inter professional exam, so I didn’t follow the VR into the regular air force. I also found that I was not admissible for the University Corps, where I tried to train for cert ‘B’ and a certain commission in the army. I then applied to the Admiralty for a commission in the RNVR, Air Branch, but was told that there were no vacancies; this ‘no vacancies’ position persisted right on until the spring of 1940, when I registered. Then the fun began.
For those who can’t wait 95 weeks to read the rest…
This is the text version which still has some typos…
When looked at retrospectively, my entry into His Majesty’s Forces was bizarre in the extreme. Its most outstanding feature was the difficulty which attended my many and complex approaches at every point, and which made it seem to me that I was attended by some guardian sprite who refused to let me leave my civilian life.
Firstly, some months before the war, I, like everyone else in the land, began to sort out the various forms of Services to be rendered to a country rallying her forces for a yet unhinted struggle.
I passed up the Fleet Air Arm, R.N.V.R idea, as the 18 months of training would have unsettled me in my accountancy student career most seriously. I therefore wrote to the War Office, asking for a consideration for a commission in the Supplementary Reserve of Officers, if possible in a Cavalry or Mechanised Cavalry unit.
Working from this extreme range however, I got so entangled in the famous Army red tape, which I did not understand, that it was many weeks before I had been fully investigated, and by that time there were so many better applications that mine was suddenly dismissed. So I contented myself with joining the OCR and badgering the RAFVR to put me on the waiting list. It took me three weeks of calling and phoning to get on the list, [the Central Airport VR refused me admittance] and the War immediately broke out and the VR waiting list was torn up.
I had by now decided to go on with my studies for 2nd Inter professional exam, so I didn’t follow the VR into the regular air force. I also found that I was not admissible for the University Corps, where I tried to train for cert ‘B’ and a certain commission in the army. I then applied to the Admiralty for a commission in the RNVR, Air Branch, but was told that there were no vacancies; this ‘no vacancies’ position persisted right on until the spring of 1940, when I registered. Then the fun began.
First, I registered a preference for the Navy, to enter the Air Aim. Then found that 18 to 20 was the age, and after waiting 6 months I was three weeks too old. On cancelling my preference for Navy [since it was much too risky joining as Ordinary seaman] I automatically was registered in the Army. The Colonel at Mungo’s Halls however, seeing me keen on flying, shoved me through to the RAF section, where I was enrolled in the VR, showing what a little push did, in face of rules, as compared with all my futile exertions [I had been down to Mungo’s Halls many times] I was actually called up in the Army in the 50th HLI (Highland Light Infantry) after joining the RAF. Where my OCR would have got me I cannot tell.
Thereafter I went for a fortnight’s holiday, disappearing with my bike into the Highlands of the Protected West, and phoning at intervals.
When I returned I had a short impatient wait, and then down to Padgate, where I passed all the tests with certainty, if not ease and came home in the small hours with the tired and cheerful mixtures of the BEF, returning in Loads from the ‘Dunkirk Ferries’.
Life at home got more and more unbearable. Being one of the only three remaining third class clerks, my office work was neither light nor interesting and, apart from a trip to Morecambe via Lancaster consisted of working beyond my capabilities for long periods while others lazed and waited for me to finish. Then, two months later, on August 20th I was to present myself at Torquay for ‘re-embodiment’. I had ten days to put my affairs in order and then changed my mode of living, as follows.
Sunday evening was the zero of my departure, so at about 7pm I came downstairs for the last ‘civvy’ time, shook my ole pal, Dad, by the hand, kissed my mother and let myself out by the front gate with a certain amount of pride and resolution. Dad gave me a warm and hard grip, and said, “Well, we’ve been over all there is to say. Good luck”, and mums, when she put her efface up to be kissed, had a firm smile nailed to a face of tears. So I didn’t altogether feel the satisfaction that I had anticipated in the preceding fretful weeks. My sister Jean accompanied me to the station, and there, seen off by the younger set of the office, who had left their Sunday eve’s pleasures to turn up, I pulled out on the familiar 7.50 from Central which had taken me on all the office trips to Lancaster.
The RAF atmosphere began right away, for I had as company two wireless operator trainees on their way to Morecambe. After an uncomfortable wait at Crewe, I managed to get a seat in a crowded, noisy (with half drunks) train filled with soldiers, sailors and others like myself, and I slept fitfully, propped up in a corner.
The morning found us in North Wales somewhere, and I having never been South before felt a stranger to these hills with the fields at the tops, and woods halfway down these slow meandering rivers, artificially banked, wandering among parks studded with elms and poplars, their courses marked by the attendant ‘pruned’ willows.
The countryside continually revealed the results of war: factories and airdromes with their blotchy camouflage of brown and green, and Bristol’s Balloons heralded that town in the valley long before the GWR yellow brown train swept round the hill to the station and were still in sight when the Bridge had disappeared round the next shoulder. Then we coasted along through the close monotonous fields of Somerset, and into the waterways of Devon, with their wind-eroded walls and thus to Torquay.
At Torquay we were sorted out in the cab rank outside the station and immediately became groups part of a big machine, and no longer individuals and had to remember to answer to our last three figures.
We climbed aboard buses, and were taken up and down the long, tree-enclosed hills of Devon to Babbacombe, two or three miles North along the coast, and from the bus I saw my pal from home, who had been in the machine for a week or so; and that was the nearest I ever got to speaking with him, though we were neighbours for a fortnight.
The mass production atmosphere was at once evident. That morning we waited most of the time in a bunch outside the ‘Norcliffe’, were fed in batches, scanned nude in dozens in FFI, and dished out with bare rooms in a tall, awkward hotel, the Babbacombe, with the name poorly painted out just where the end of the promenade along the cliff tops turned in and met the main road.
The first week was rather strange for everyone, it was devoted mainly to the issuing and altering of uniforms and kit (A very good kit too: two trousers, two pairs boots, tunic, equipment, great coat (none broad enough for my Scottish build) knife fork and even a shaving brush and sewing gear) which entailed long waits on the lawns at ‘Oswaldo’ to the mass inoculation and vaccination against typhoid, tetanus and smallpox (where we sat on benches stripped to the waist, hands on hips, with two medicos working up each side, and which affected me not at all apart from a little stiffness): and to the first maths and medical lectures.
These lectures were given in the little concert hall at the end of the cliff top promenade and in the case of the maths, with the aid of one blackboard and easel a diminutive education officer reviewed the most elementary mathematical principles.
We were allowed quite a lot of time off here, being free most evenings after tea, and having 24 hours excused duties after the inoculations, but I didn’t make much use of the time, mainly because I hadn’t found anyone of my own outlook to pal up with. For the most part they seemed to me a fast, loose moralled bunch though some were of the ‘dumb’ mother’s apron strings type, but I got used to them later, although I was most disappointed in the standard at first. Their sole amusements in the evening seemed to be consuming beer and cider and parading the promenade or the tree-dimmed pathways down the cliff face on the lookout for ‘talent’.
As neither pastime interested me at all I went mainly by myself for walks over the stubble above the cliffs or round the pebble shore beneath and once or twice for a scramble up or down.
My feelings during this time were mixed but I wasn’t very happy about things. The atmosphere was all wrong. I’d expected to find a crowd of clear-eyed, clean minded, determined but carefree young men bent on flying as soon as possible. Instead I found a bunch of whom I thought few would ever make pilots, some ‘Jessie’s’ but mostly a slack moralled lot (to my home standard anyway) who drifted along the easiest way, groused about everything used all kinds of dirty language in all kinds of dialects and thought little about flying and a lot about their ‘dates’ and time off. Also they were a competitively minded bunch, always arguing themselves into small superiorities and jealous of each other’s general impressing.
I began to feel restless and a bit ‘frustrated’, especially as I didn’t shine noticeable in the ranks during the drill instruction, behind the hotel (but then no-one did) though I later put these feelings down to a natural desire to be up and doing something worthwhile (instead of these trivialities), which I’d had for months, now reasserting itself, so I grew to long for the post to Initial Training Wing whose cadets we saw daily with their white ‘peaks’ and looked up to as superior beings, and where one could really get one’s teeth into useful subjects.
The second week was not so bad, though I still couldn’t feel in the same plane as most others, nor equal to them in this sort of personality competition (except for one not repeated occasion on which, after a 4th refresher of good Devon Cider, the season was at its sight, whose effect I had not anticipated, I felt and imparted a ‘bearing’ second to none).
The maths lectures were more reasonable, and the administration and gas quite interesting in spite of a tendency to sleep: the drill was more strenuous, and the more it annoyed or distressed the majority, the more it satisfied me. At Physical Training too I was impressed by the high standard of physique displayed on the grass in the sun, quite apart from the outstanding specimens and I was more than pleased to find myself fitter than most, or at any rate able to execute without any great effort or after effect, exercises which made our flight in particular tender for days. The PT was given under ideal conditions in the fresh sea air on top of the cliffs, with the August sun (which never failed to shine the whole fortnight) to keep one warm while resting: and it was calculated to trim up the mind as well, quick, complicated exercises and quicker commands being included.
One lecture was given by the Padre, (a Scotsman, with wings from the last war) on morale and esprit de Corps. He understood the troubles and dangers besetting a body of men and used the memory and knowledge of the cleanliness of home life against the contaminations of the situation. He was the first to convince us we were cadets, and privileged class earmarked to become officers.
Then on Wednesday we learned of postings to ITW; along with a lecture by the MO on avoidance and treatment of VD. He treated the subject in such a commonplace and jocular manner as to amuse most, relieve some, and shock the others; but his advice was practically and sound “be good if you can, if you can’t here’s how to be careful’
I found myself posted to Cambridge and though I would have liked to stay in Devon, at Torquay or Paignton, with the cliffs, showing through the rising land mists, verging the sparkling sea, Cambridge had a name for being more thorough, and was certainly better than Aberystwyth, the other alternative.
We therefore missed the visit Lord Trenchard was paying to the Receiving Wing, but were addressed by our Air Officer commanding, who, from the similes he used must have been a Navy man at one time. He outlined the system, removing our doubts in most directions. We would have to work hard, he said, but if we got enough recommendations (which would be independent of each other) we would end up commissioned pilots, and in a shorter time than ever before.
And feeling very cheerful, we all went off to pack our kit and sleep ready for an early start: but the Bosche came over and we were in the shelter till 12.30pm. We saw little of Jeffy in that fortnight and our only close view was of a Junkers 88, which skimmed past, while we were on parade, after bombing Newton Abbot. We spent a number of miserable and long nights in the shelter behind the hotel, a cold barn of a place with cold draughts, a cold concrete floor, and no seating accommodation at all. The Commanding Officer came round each time to see we were all right, and to explain what we were expected to do to them in due course. The first night of our arrival was the only time that bombs dropped near, however, and then they dropped three whistling bombs which cam screaming down in a disturbing manner to land 200 ft away, which made me feel quite excited.
So on the Friday, we turned out at 5am and marched to Torquay Station, where we boarded a special train, which took us through the sunlit countryside in a roundabout route lasting eight hours to Cambridge, past great new camouflaged factories, block-houses in fields and orderly miles of smoke producers outside London. And in all this time, we had little news, and heard nothing of what was going on.
We gathered however that the Nazi bombers were attempting raised all up and down the coast, were being trounced by our fighters each time and that ‘great events that would change the whole course of things’ were to be expected very soon.
On our arrival at Cambridge we were sorted out like sheep in the station yard and marched off tour various squadrons at a pace which made us sit up and take notice, it was our introduction to the 140p/min timing which was in force throughout the wing and though it soon became commonplace we were startled at first.
As we afterwards found, Cambridge was almost entirely in government hands; St Johns, Claire, Jesus and other great Colleges were used as living accommodation (Jesus’ was Wing HQ) for the RAF, and the army in its many branches were to be seen in most others. The smaller colleges, Magdalene and the Divinity School and Union Society and others were used by the RAF as classrooms.
Our first sight of St Johns where we were to be stationed was most impressive: we entered the massive gateway surmounted by gilded coats of arms, crossed a court, with the find chapel (whose square tower was our landmark later) on one side, bright with its fresh well kept lawns and cobbled ‘fairways’, through another arch, another cobbled, silent court, another arch and court, over an unmistakeable replica of the ‘Bridge of Sighs’ and so into the cloisters of ‘new court’, whose other three sides were bounded by four-story, carved, Yellowstone face was comfortably clothed on the open side by red creepers.
The ground floor rooms of these buildings were used as dormitories, seven or eight beds in each (with straw filled pelisses and pillows and three blankets each) and the rest as living rooms. Seven of us were allotted a living room, which was fortunately only one storey up, but others had to climb the full four floors up the echoing spiral stairway, no joke on a dark morning in pyjamas.
The rooms themselves were large and rather bare, with a minimum of furniture, and as we were there till the end of October, very cold and draughty, even with fires on though these were not allowed at first.
On arriving then at St Johns then we were issued with a white ‘peak’, a handbook, PT kit and a green-brown camouflaged cape groundsheet and handed over to some ‘veterans’ who showed us where and what and when, and generally introduced us to the routine and conditions of A squadron, No 2 ITW.
The routine was roughly this: every weekday, we had either the morning or afternoon for classes in maths, signals and armaments and the other times filled with foot drill, rifle drill, PT or lectures on ‘law and discipline and administration’ or aircraft and ship recognition. Sunday mornings included a Church Parade (we split up in groups, Church of England, Catholic and other denominations and had all our services to ourselves with our RAF padres) and Sunday and Wednesday afternoons were reserved for ‘Organised Games’.
These Organised Games were for most people rather a farce, for nowhere was such disorganisation displayed. It was left to each man to decide on which of the possible games he wished to play, then report for kit to play it with and then appear on parade with the rest ‘suitably dressed’. Dangerous games like rugby or soccer required a detailed report towing HQ, so these were usually ‘organised’ in advance by self-appointed organisers (and of course the inter-squadron and wing games were arranged by the officers) but most of the lads came out dressed for tennis or squash and wrote letters home while (apparently) waiting for their turn with the limited kit available.
Thirty people turning out to play squash on eight courts in one afternoon demonstrates the principles.
I, in company with the others who had not developed a love for ‘school’ sports, went swimming (sometimes in the river Cam above the Fen Causeway, sometimes in the bath of some college, when the polo games were being played) during September when the sky was clear and blue, and the wind warm and the sun hot, but had to abandon that when it got chilly, in favour of fencing. I could have become quite proficient at fencing, or so the instructor (the University Champ) said, but we decided between us that one couldn’t scrape the surface in ten lessons or so, so he went on rushing things to make it interesting for the rest (who loved the French names and things and used to wear the full rig out quite unnecessarily) and I just used to go back to my room after the parade. (This was easy, for we fenced on the lawn outside) and so get some time to myself.
The classes were kept down to about 25 persons (half the flight) for maths and signals and eight for armaments, the latter being small so that each could spend some time playing with the guns. The maths were very elementary. When we were given an old exam paper when we arrived, we all managed to get around either though the pass mark was 60 and we had three weeks work to do! However, there were a few notable exceptions and it must have been a great refresher to those of the 25-9 group who had been a long time from school. Trig and geometry did not come into the course at all! The maths master was a F/O of a ‘tired’ nature, not too good at imparting knowledge, and consequently we all had a tendency to sleep in the periods (of two hours duration) after lunch.
I managed to maintain a steady 94% up to and including the exam, but there were one or two who got 100% alas. After this exam (which came after three weeks work) we dropped maths and went on to navigation, which consisted mostly of working with the various standard maps and charts of the RAF and many screeds of notes on same, and also a general study of the sphere and its plane projections and their properties, leading up to the understanding of rhomb lines and great circles, and the plotting of courses and tracks on Mercado’s projection using D of velocities and compass deviation and variation. All this was quite interesting, and as I knew most of it already, I got a name in class as a navigation expert, but when the exam cam along, after another three weeks, I again only got 94% while some of those I coached and explained various things to gained higher marks (97% was the highest). Such is life. But I think my method of learning had something to do with it. Firstly, we never had a minute to study the multiplicity of subjects we were learning.
Try as I liked, I could never find time to do more than the necessities of polishing buttons and boots, cleaning the room, writing now and again, and so on, and it used to worry me no end, for there was so much I really wanted to study, and I did have the ability. The president of the college, Mr Charlesworth, allowed us a room in his quarters, where amid surroundings palatial compared to our rooms, and a welcome change from the clamour of seven tongues, a select three or four were able to do a bit of work (and have a cup of tea) but it was rather late to be made full use of: and anyway, my room mates used to demand with worried expressions, whether I couldn’t spare a moment to explain some point: and my inner mane being flattered, I would then spend all evening (we were free from 7 till 10.30 but had to stay in college on ‘parashot’ nights) propounding the laws governing navigation and the methods of calculating true and compass courses. I got two of ‘em through who would have failed otherwise, but it ran away with a lot of time. Armaments were nearly as bad, for only one other in the room was at all mechanically minded (strange for the air force?) and the rest couldn’t understand what they had written in their books.
But this ‘method of learning’ of mine-the principle became apparent late on: (it was not done on purpose) instead of direct concentration and memorisation of facts, I found I had a tendency to ‘familiarise’ myself with the subject.
I can’t explain it quite, but I accept no new fact without tracing back to its source, or linking it up with things already established; thus I came to understand each subject, navigation, armaments in particular aircraft rc and without being able to recite any of the jargon dished out by the instructors. It may not have been good for mark getting, but it ruled out all glaring and stupid mistakes and made me feel quite ‘at home’ with said subjects.
In armaments, we examined and learned the intricacies of the Browning Gun, which was the finest m/g in existence, and after the exam (6 weeks) the Vickers Gas Operated. We had a gun each most periods and had to strip and reassemble them for cleaning and be able to demonstrate each part of the ‘action’. I spent some time making ‘engineering drawings’ of the complete gun, but most just wrote down what was dictated: the exam was a written one and required verbatim answers, as per dictation, so I only got 94% again.
Signals consisted of Morse on Baser and Aldis Lamp, and again I was well ahead at the start and was caught up later. Eight words a minute at first seemed impossible but after the first week everyone knew the alphabet, and after a month could read and send quite well. We used to go down to Jesus’ Green and practice Aldis flashing (receiving people in pairs in a group) over a triangular course, about 300 yards per leg, to the amazement of all beholders who got shouted at when they got in the way. The corporal who taught it was a warped creature with an acid tongue who would have taught us all right had he been treated right: but the class would pull his leg and one vicious natured ex-policeman from Gloucester in particular used to threaten and dare him, sea-lawyer fashion, so there were more rows than necessary and less Morse instruction.
I made an error in buzzer sending (doing 12 words a minute cipher instead of 6 at which I could have passed out) so I didn’t deserve the 100% they gave me.
There were some five or six ‘periods’ (the whole system was very reminiscent of school, even the required ‘yes sir, three bags full, sir ‘atmosphere’) which were reserved for ‘lectures on ‘law and administration’ ‘Gas’ ‘Hygiene and Aircraft and ship recognition.
The Law and Admin and Hygiene were given by the Pos who were our flight commanders, and they used to sit and read out excerpts from Kings Regulations, on ‘behaviour of airmen on charge’ or something for the former, or how to counteract snakebite or dig latrines for fifty men for fifty days in the latter case to the ‘class’ of mixed flights, most of whom gradually went to sleep and were surreptitiously wakened by the comrades. The Gas lectures were delivered by ‘G as NCOs’, who had to repeat things verbatim from the book of words, whilst staring fixedly ahead.
The Aircraft and Ship recognition (proportion 10:1) lectures were given, half by chalk diagrams on the blackboard of various college lecture rooms and half with slides, photographs and air ministry films at the Amateur Dramatic Society’s theatre.
All these lectures were given at random, so we often covered the same ground twice. But I took to aircraft and ship recognition rather well, and used to high enough marks to win the beer offered by the rash instructor, which was a waste for I’d decided not to go the way of all (or nearly all) airmen which was into the ‘Baron of Beef’.
The food was not fancy and was indeed sometimes unpalatable (rissoles which niffed and fish cakes which gave me heartburn) but there was plenty of it, and it seemed ‘well balanced’. First we ate in the ‘hall’ of Magdalene (pronounced Maudlin) college, a long, high, dark-beamed and panelled hall with stained glass windows throwing shafts of sunlight through the gloom; a place which had Samuel Pepys picture and name everywhere (along with other pictures, and names in crests on the windows, notably Rajah Brooks, and a Bibliotheca Pepsonia or something at the back)
Here we sat at long oak tables on heavy oak benches, and got ‘stuck into it’ elbow to elbow in a very ‘Henry VIII’ style to be in keeping with the surroundings.
At first we queued up for food but later had a roster of ‘mess orderlies’, whose duty it was to see that everyone got fed and as there were always one or two ‘extra’ meals, and everyone ‘bagged’ them early, there was always a row about somebody not getting enough. Butler was the chief trouble though there was really enough for everyone, and twice as much as any civilian ration.
Later, when the flight was depleted we transferred to Johns Hall, a much loftier and longer hall, with gold and gaudy figuring on the complicated woodwork supporting the roof. After five weeks of this feeding, I found I had gained a stone and a half in weight, which speaks for itself.
The general discipline of the place was very strict. We had to be up at 5.30 (later we used to make it 6.30 and a real rush) get washed and shaved in the shower, bath-cum-wash basin cubicles in the dark or half light (and have a real scramble to get in first, or else wait), get on parade and march to Magdalene with no stragglers, feed, be back in Johns with buttons polished, boots cleaned, rooms tidied and beds made (or rather blankets folded) and on parade by 8am; any of the above things missed, meant being ‘on a charge’ before the CO, or an extra guard or some such, which at first seemed to be a very childish method of getting the best out of a gang of men some of whom were married, but as mostly we behaved like school boys, I suppose we were rightly treated as such. The drill was a strenuous business, being at 140 per min timing and was mostly carried out in the grounds of Johns or the playing fields at the back. We only used the car park in the centre of Cambridge, our official drill square when practising for the inter-squadron drill competition (another very school boyish business).
We were lucky in having a corporal (one corporal and one PO per flight) of Irish extraction, one corporal Toohig, a London boxer, who used to ‘co-operate’ with us in order to keep everybody happy, instead of wielding his authority to keep us ‘in our place’.
I noticed that most of the lads picked up rifle and foot drill much more quickly than did the schoolboys of ‘cadet corps’ days, but there were notable exceptions, as usual. This again showed the trend of my ITW days, for at the start I was streets ahead, having done all this before, and later was ‘caught up with’ by the rest of the bunch. I had some fun getting used to their method and position of the ‘slope’, having trained on a Enfield, not a Remington as in the RAF and consequently when my slope was ‘corrected’ (there was only one officer, one Addison who was a very unpopular amateur, who used to correct me) I automatically brought it back into the instinctive position I was used to and I never did get out of the trick.
The fellows who constituted the flights, the general mass of Aircraftsmen Second Class, Under Training Pilots (ac/s U T/Pilots) who we, were told, would constitute the backbone of Britain in days to come, were for the most part, very much ‘men of the world’ in the commoner sense, with the usual percentage of ‘pilot fish’, those weaker minded ‘stooges’ who accompanied the strong self centred characters, bore all their scorn and viciousness, in order to shine in their reflected, tarnished glory.
Cambridge lived up to its bad reputation, as far as the morals of its inhabitants (of certain classes) went. So the ‘lads’, who varied in age from 19 ½ to 25 or so with a few old men of 28, used to disappear after parades for the day were finished, usually about 6pm, and be back around 10pm (the deadline much to their annoyance) and whilst their tales of the evening pastime, in pubs and cafes, was doubtless mostly imagination to impress the hearer, the trend was what I considered as of a low moral and mental standard. But I may be narrow minded, though I don’t think so. My explanation at the time was that they were experiencing a new freedom from ‘private life’ control, which they felt they must make use of and the ‘tomorrow we die’# notion may have helped.
There were of course, others, and after the first week or so, after we had canoed or punted up and down the river, flowing through the parkland verging the colleges, and walked a bit, within the cramping 2 mile limit, we spent most of our time off in the sanctuary of the college.
I went far a field one Sunday afternoon with a few ac/n who had been an undergrad, to a farm where with borrowed guns and a box of cartridges and a wee cairn terrier, we shot pheasants; but while it was fine exercise, with a fresh wind blowing, the cobwebs from us, it was a poorish sport, the little ole dog doing all the work and we merely shooting at the heavy birds as they rose from the stubble or out of the waist high green mustard.
Another day, after I’d chummed up with another chap of my own ilk (Harold Sherwood, from Driffield) we went for a longish ‘hike’ (in uniform of course) around the flat, ditch crossed, watered and willowed fenland, with its black wood barns, picturesque thatched cottages and many pubs and its strange denizens, who fished the quiet rivers with floats on their lines.
We two, latterly, went out every now and then in the evening for a civilised ‘feed’ in the ‘Scotch Hoose’, a very satisfactory eating house with a fire in each of its smallish rooms, but otherwise we stayed in our own rooms in the college (where I now had one almost to myself, and where I took great pains to have a roaring fire) on occasionally in the President’s room.
These roommates of mine were a curious bunch, the most mixed room in the flight I think, and it was surprising how we all hung together after a week or so together, despite the differences in temperament and outlook. There were three ‘Geordies’, one my namesake was a Prudential insurance agent, and I refused to be considered a volunteer, whose mother ran a fish shop, and who as a hard mannered, bull headed, but efficient sort of bloke, with a coarse accent and a comfortable salary, and a hard and rather materialistic outlook on life. Next was Donkin, who was training to take over the family bakery, and was a happy, knock about, rugger loving lad from Ashington. The other Geordie was a fair haired, worried lad from Whitley Bay, who was 20, a railway clerk, and who spent all his time arguing with anyone who would listen about the devotion he had for the girl he was engaged to, and to whom he wrote every night. He worried about everything, especially his exams (in which he got two 100% b) and knew nothing at all about planes or flying, yet learned all sorts of bookwork off by heart. A timid soul, who wanted home. Jeff Saul was a strange lad. He came from a fairly unhappy home, made more so because, being in the building trade, they were roughly speaking ‘on the rocks’. He was not at all religious, yet prayed by his bed nightly, mainly to ask God what he was created for. He didn’t mind much whether he ’came back’ or not but had anything but a dashing careless nature. He used often to say, while trying to study, “I’m a numb so and so” in his broad ‘Sam Small’ dialect.
There was also a dark haired and complexioned young Londoner known as ‘whiskers’, who hadn’t been very long in an insurance office, who collected gramophone records, like watching dirt track or motor racing, and whose knowledge of planes was limited to models built at school.
Then there was Bates. Bates was a lanky schoolboy, nothing more. He knew little of the facts and figures of life, but had immense self confidence and ‘gall’, having been educated at Harrow. He was known universally as ‘Master Bates’ and never discouraged the name, despite its obviously vulgar jest. He was an atheist but a passive one, and we all used to have most intricate and lengthy discussions on this point and others, in which I was frequently called upon by both sides, to decide who was right, for they seemed to think I was an authority of sorts on every subject under the sun, or else a philosopher who could decide what was right.
Then, there was me. And no doubt I was the queerest of the bunch. A fellow who explained the lessons of the day, enlarged upon same and generally acted the tutor at night, yet got no higher marks than themselves: who sometimes was put in command of the flight and handled it almost flawlessly and yet never volunteered as super-numeric: who could tell many tales of many friends and many lands yet never made a single friend in Cambridge, nor ever went ‘walking out’ at night. But may be they put that down to being a Scot, a being not generally understood.
We had one unusual duty: that was mounting guard at Magdalene college. About once in a fortnight my turn came round, and in company with three others, the guard commander and other guards, would march down to the college, loaded up with full skeleton kit, rifle and bayonet, in hat, gas cape, and blankets, much to the amusement of the townspeople.
We did two two-hour tricks each, and two hours standing in the arch behind the great timber doors, challenging all comers who stepped through the postern from the bustling street outside into the fan of light from the porters lodge door, was about all the old feet would stand. During the second trick, early in the morning the postern was shut, and we could safely nip in to the porters room out of the cold; but while the raid warnings were on, the gate had to be unlocked and so we had to be on guard in case the orderly officer came over from Johns.
We managed to get through the curriculum in six weeks, and were standing in the cloisters preparatory to being dismissed (After a lecture on ‘high flying’ airsickness and attendant oxygen starvation troubles, also ‘blackouts’, red flash etc, the nearest approach to real flying knowledge yet) when we were told to line up for interview with the CO we had been posted!
The suspense, waiting to hear where, was hard to bear; but finally I went in, and was told that I was posted to the one place I really wanted to be posted to PRESTWICK!
What a surprise! I walked on air for the next couple of days, the gang pulled my leg about the permanent grin that replaced the usual lack of expression; I telephoned the good news home and everything had a rosy hue. I had visions of being back in God’s country, waking to see the sun lighting the peaks of Arran, or dying behind them in the evening: or riding high above them in a Tiger Moth.
I would be over country I knew well: where I couldn’t get lost: where I could see the folks as often as they wanted to come and where I could get home every week: in fact, the perfect place. The postings were all being changed unreasonably around at this time. No one could swap either. The Canadian postings got away 4 week late, and the Southern Rhodesia boys finally came with us.
And then, when all was ready for the transfer, the Prestwich postings were cancelled. We had to watch the others go off to Derby and Carlisle, and we stayed behind. The bottom dropped out of things and the next days of the old routine were very bleak indeed. I had to phone home the black news, and altogether I felt sort of low.
Next week we started on the Link trainer course, the seventeen of us who were left, and this produced a new interest to occupy my mind. We had to march about ¾ mile to the fen causeway, often with me in command, as I had a habit of making few mistakes with the many ‘eyes right’ we had to give the many and various officers about. The trainers were miniature planes with detailed wing, strut and rigging wire assemblies, to create a view from the pilot’s seat similar to that from a Tigers cockpit.
The gadget was mounted in such a way that it could move in any way (about a stationery centre) under the controls, which were similar to those of a real plane. The instruments were the real thing for visual and blind flying, and the instructor was in touch by telephone (hand mike). The whole thing (and the class of four pupils) was inside a cyclorama, a circular canvas wall, painted to represent, very realistically, the earth from about 3000 feet or less, with one section of mountain and one where the sky and sea had no horizon.
Here, with the aid of a book of words we learned the elements of flying straight and level, medium turns climbing and gliding ditto, and also how to make the bus do these manoeuvres by co-ordinate use of the stick and rudder. It was ticklish work at first, but soon we could handle it unlocked in all directions with the artificial ‘bumps’ turned on full.
Towards the end of this three weeks course, after we had learned the whys and how’s of all the simple aerobatics and normal manoeuvres and also a whole lot about flying in general, and about wing loadings and stalls and flying theory in particular, from our sergeant instructor, who had flown civil machines before the war, we had an examination in which I got the only 100% mainly I think because the subject was very real and interesting; and thereafter we ‘flew’ the link from under the hood.
This was a queer business; you kept the machines lateral altitude correct by means of a gyro horizon, which also showed the relative position of your nose. (the small T represents a rear view of the plane in miniature, and the two lines the moving horizon) and you checked your rate of turn and amount of ‘skid’ or ‘slip’ (if you weren’t doing a balanced turn) from a ‘turn and bank’ indicator. Then there was an air speed indicator to be kept above stalling, a rev counter to watch, a throttle to play with and a compass with a 30 degree northerly turning error, to turn on to courses with. So with all those to be permanently watched and the thing to fly you were perspiring freely after a very short time. And when your senses play you false too (they always do, for when you stop moving in any direction you have the strongest feeling of turning the other way) you do have to concentrate. But I did all right, and was under for about 45 minutes at a time, in the stuffy, humming, dimly lit box o’trix that is a link.
About this time we finally were posted again. Four ‘extra special’ postings (what was special about ‘em no-one knew, for the dumbest, most unenthusiastic oaf, who failed in link was chosen) went to White Waltham near Maidenhead, West of London, among them my pal Sherwood, and the rest of us were billed for Hatfield. I was a bit downcast about this, for there were some postings to Perth at the same time, but I was glad that we were leaving Cambridge with its depressing old buildings, martinet senior HCOs, and pasty faced affected, lord’s anointed students, which was the way things looked to me in my state of mind.
On the last night before leaving, it was the habit of departing flights to leave their mark on the lower spires of the tower in our new court: pyjama trousers, or under vests, or an HCOs brushes but as yet, no one had decorated the tower proper, nor had their displays remained long, being well within reach. As my pal had left I had nothing to do on my last night, while the majority were out getting tanked, or nearly so, on late passes. So with cool scheming I pinched a cleaners broom and three coal shovels and lashed them into a sort of cross, suitably inscribed with ‘Blanco’, and then went to Woolworth’s and purchased a few fathoms of best clothes rope.
Then when it was dark with another lad who was stuck, and was given that way, we ‘smuggled’ a great fifteen foot ladder up the spiral stairway (it stretched from side to side and revolved up) and out the tiny window at the top, whence it went out and up over the battlements by means of the clothes line. This gave us a footing on the old clock face, and thereafter it was a slow climb, up the white crumbly stonework, in the cold and rainy dark to the spire. The Southport-Canadian stayed on the clock, and when the rope had served its purpose, it was let down for the ‘Croix de guerre’. There was a ticklish moment when the ugly, heavy gadget was being entered in the crown at the top of the weather vane, for the wind was rising, and we had fun taking the ladder back, for the lads had set all sorts of booby traps, fire buckets full of water on the stairs, but we had a full nights enjoyment out of out stunt, and it was good to see it on the clear morning sunshine as we marched off in ‘full marching order and gas capes’, with its apt inscription PER ARDUA AD ASTRA where it remained anonymously for many weeks.
We arrived in Hatfield, after being carried on to Kings Cross, on a rainy Saturday morning, and were taken at a breathless pace, in an open truck to the aerodrome. It was the first time we had got within shouting distance of an aeroplane eleven weeks after joining!
It was rather sudden, this jump from the quiet colleges to the roars and drones of a real live flying school. There were Tiger Moths galore taxiing about in the rain others circling overhead, and in the foreground, on the verge of the vast green flying field, were all sorts of interesting machines, among them a Douglas Boston (a bomber reputed as fast as a spitfire) and a huge Whitley also Spitfires, Hurricanes, Oxfords and all the usual.
We were housed in four long wooden huts, with beds up each side and two stoves in the middle, in real wartime style. The station was run and owned by the De Havilland company, whose bombed factory buildings (a small fraction of the whole works) stood gauntly alongside and the ‘club’ premises were given over the to the U/r pilots (of whom there were a senior course in residence when we arrived) and consisted of a canteen, a large room comfortably furnished with easy chairs, and another room fitted up for feeding.
The buildings adjoining the control room were given over the classrooms parachute store, and flying clothing lockers etc, on the ground floor and the various ‘offices’ (general, equipment, CGI, etc) upstairs. The Chief Ground Instructor was a big, fatty joweled imperious civilian, and wore the De Havilland uniform (a sort of mock RAF uniform, with chromium-plated buttons and DH wings) and amused us by the school teacher attitude he adopted in class, separating people for ‘talking’ and so forth, on the rare occasions he did do any lecturing. He was a most unpopular man being resented as a civilian in authority, particularly as he handled all ‘leave passes’ etc, and there were no leave passes being granted as far as I could see and no weekends either. We were just allowed one day per week, alternate Saturday and Sundays, and were allowed to stay out all the previous night if we wished. The CGI handled all the ground instruction (navigation, airmanship, signals etc) and as flying took precedence over everything else; he was in co-operation with the CFI (Chief Flying Instructor) who was an RAF officer, and respected as such though we rarely saw him. He in turn was responsible to the CO and his sidekick the adjutant. This distribution accounted for the curious system in force: the groundwork feeding and accommodation being handled by De Havillands, and the actual flying training by the RAF.
As far as Station discipline was concerned we were directly under no one, NCO or officer flight commander, except the Flight Sergeant. Old Flight was a real change from Cambridge Sergeants, far from being a martinet, he would however not stand for ‘larkin’ abart’ and instructed us to ‘use our loafs’ or else we’d have to ‘carry the can back’. We sometimes marched from the hangers and lectures to meals in the canteen but never when the self-elected flight commanders wanted it, and there was no drill whatsoever (these self-elected flight commanders were of the Torquay bunch and I must say that the average intelligence of the Torquay lot was considerably lower than that of the Cambridge lads, and had more ‘freaks’ amongst them).
We were divided into 2 groups and 4 flights, and the days were divided so that if Group III were flying one morning, Group II flew in the afternoon and the next morning; and then it was III again: thus everyone shared the good (or bad) weather.
The weather was bad (wind and rain) when we first arrived, so it was the afternoon of the fourth day before our group (III) was ordered to turn out in flying kit.
We got into our waterproof ‘outers’ great fleece lined boots, helmet, goggles, fur collars, gauntlets, drew a parachute harness each and went clumsily scuffing and squelching round the rain soaked, muddy border of the great field, with its long streaks of tar dividing it up to look like small fields from the air for camouflage.
There were four ‘flights’, consisting in our case of a caravan trailer parked in the mud (with a large tent for the pupils to wait about in) in different parts of the field, and each had a flight commander and four or more other instructors (all flying officers) and a timekeepers hut, where records of every minute in the air of every pupil, instructor and machine were kept.
I was in ‘B’ flight, in the Southern boundary and found my instructor to be a F/O Rhodes, a big man with a seamed sort of ‘bloodhound sad’ face, and an almost gentle way of speaking and who was reputed to be one of the best instructors on the station.
He had a senior pupil to attend to and then Ginger Moffat (we all three had varying Scottish accents, so Rhodes must have thought the RAF was becoming the RSAF) and I had to wait while the bright sunshine dwindled and the cold evening wind sprang up. My enthusiasm and excitement faded gradually away and when at last no 20 came in for my first flight, I was stiff with sitting around and a wee bit bored and resentful, so I was in the cockpit, strapped up, shown how to get out in a hurry and off the ground before I knew it. I saw the throttle move in my rear cockpit, felt the thrust of acceleration, saw the nose swing down, felt the solid push of the wind, the rumbling run trail off into smoothness, and we were off; that was all; no excitement, no thrill, just like getting onto a bus.
Then I happened to look down over the flimsy side wall at the ground when about 500ft up, and for the first time the realisation dawned that here was an aspect I’d seen before from that height, but that now there was no solid ground behind or below, and a sudden panic welled up from somewhere in my subconscious. It was like the feeling in a nightmare, when you’re dangling from a thread miles up, or are swinging on the end of a rope at terrific speed, or one standing on a sloping brink of a tall building. A most unpleasant feeling of impending disaster and insecurity which must have lasted only a split second, and thereafter I was as happy as could be, and quite excited about it all. It was queer to be up there thrusting through the fluid air which felt like cold water on the exposed lower part of my face and which rushed past my padded ears loudly enough to almost drown the instructors voice in the speaking tube. The Tigermoth is only a shoulder-wide little plane, and I could see the ground on both sides and beneath in fact, in all directions except ahead, which was obstructed by the instructors’ helmeted head. The arc of the propeller was almost invisible, and could be felt rather than seen. It was very difficult indeed to look back to any extent as the high collar and helmet stopped the neck from turning, and the straps kept the shoulders fixed.
It was getting dark when we went up and there were grey clouds all round and a ground haze leaving only a smallish circle of patchwork countryside visible, with hazy edges against which we hardly seemed to move. After Rhodes had shown me the effects of controls (didn’t mind the rolling, or being tipped half over, but the pitching, undulating movement made me clench my teeth and hang on, for it was like a terrific switchback and my poor old tummy couldn’t keep pace with the rest of me) after that, then, he handed over to me and I flew her straight and level for a bit, and did a medium turn; it was grand to have a real ‘live’ mount, and feel the sudden lift given by a puff of wind, or the tilt when only one wing got it, instead of the mechanically steady movements of the link with its synthetic ‘bumps’. The instructor seemed very pleased with this performance, and as it was getting quite dark now, he took over as a weird finger of cloud loomed up ahead in the greyness and we turned aside steeply and headed for the drome. I had no idea at all where the drome was in the patchwork below, for I had been too busy just enjoying myself to notice directions, but in due course it materialised, looking very different from the air. The landing, from my uninitiated point of view was most unimpressive, we simply went down with the engine throttled back, till the grass was streaking past at arm’s length, touched down lightly with nose in air and rolled to a stop. A mechanic came out in the mud in his rubber boots, took a wing tip and we taxied in. I got unstrapped, climbed out, assured Mr Rhodes that I had enjoyed it immensely, and that was my first flight, and consisted of (according to my log) air experience, taxiing, straight and level flying and I remember thinking that whilst I could see my way to being at home buzzing about the sky at odd angles in their chicken wire and canvas Tiger Moths, I didn’t yet see that I’d be cool and confident while all by myself with a gadget which had umpteen tricks up its sleeve that I didn’t understand at all. And that pitching quite distracted my attention at the time.
In the next flight, two days later, I checked up on our position all the time, much to the instructor’s amusement, though he half expected me to get along fast, for he’d asked us if anyone had ever handled a boat or ridden a horse and well..
So he didn’t waste time much and on this trip he did a couple of loops, which I enjoyed immensely, though the first time I got caught with my head bent forward, and the downward pressure was so great that I could only strain my head back again in time to see the inverted horizon appearing from somewhere behind my head. Then he had me doing stalls. You stall a plane by shutting off the engine, yanking the nose back till its vertical and then she stalled, and falls down like a brick till you pull out of the vertical dive which results and oh! That sinking feeling. I much preferred horsing out of the dives. Then whilst in the midst of a few stalled turns (immelmans) I found the secret. In a stalled turn you fall down sideways but the sensation was the same: so I tried relaxing for a change. As we tipped over on our beam-ends, I just slumped like a ‘bag of totties’, and looked around. The nose swung down and we dived out (over Hatfield House Hospital) heading straight for the expanding scenery below. And the clenched up sensation was replaced by a lovely floating feeling when gravity was neutralised. So I had it licked, and though it sometimes caught me when tensed later, I could always relax and break it: and that ended a slight drawback to being properly ‘at home’ in aerobatics, which must have been a purely muscular contraction inside.
After about a week, during which Id only been up 4 ½ hours, due to mists and general bad weather, I was suddenly given my ‘solo’ test, consisting of two circuits and landings during which the testing instructor, a stranger to me, said and did nothing at all; this was tremendous for the average solo time was about 8-14 hours! But I muffed it for though I passed the test okay, I developed immediately a flare for bad landings and my instructor wouldn’t let me get off. I just couldn’t do the fine three pointer I’d done previously right from the start. I did good approaches, then levelled off too high and sank the last bit fast, or else flow right onto the ground and bounced. So it was altogether six hours before I was finally off. An hour and a half solid of circuits and bad landings! My instructor had always spoken in a quiet and encouraging voice, but now he sounded exasperated and occasionally at my landings in no uncertain manner (the majority of instructors incidentally, although officers, were most obscene and cursed their pupils black and blue every day! Mine was an exception) and he seemed to find fault with every aspect of my flying on those awful circuits. I was terribly dumped for I couldn’t understand what was wrong and was more hurt to think I was bad enough to have him think I wasn’t trying (I think he was sore I didn’t get off in 4 ½ hours which would have been a record).
Finally he got out at the leeward boundary and said “You’ve been doing so badly with me aboard, you can do it by yourself! What do you think of that eh?” I still thought he was most annoyed with and disappointed in me but he changed immediately, and was like a hen with its chick “I was kidding you son; think you’ll be all right?”
Did I! The relief was tremendous; for I’d begun to think I’d never make the grade. So he trudged off and I squinted around, jammed the throttle full open pushed her tail up, streaked into wind checking swing like a veteran, nursed the wheels off, stayed down till the needle gave me 75mph then went up like a rocket. I was pretty busy at the start, what with easing throttle at 400ft, levelling out and setting tail trim and throttle at 800, dodging the army lads in their magister, and swinging into the first turn, but when I got time to think, man, it was great. No apprehension, or distrust of my abilities at all, just a great elation, and relief to get up there by myself. I had no idea how much an instructor ‘nags’ at you till you get up without one. I could turn when I liked, without asking first, and rely on my own judgement in all circumstances instead of worrying about doing the right thing and generally be my own boss, and the planes. I was quite satisfied that I could get out of stalls or spins, and nothing else could happen. Landing is always an uncertain business, but I shut off at 800 glided along, turned in at 500, picked my spot and touched down right where I wanted. It was a poor landing, with a last minute ‘balloon’ and consequent bounce, but as there was no-one to criticise, why should I worry!
It’s pretty difficult to tell, without much experience, just how fast to pull the stick back to keep just two feet up when you’re covering the ground at 65 mph and can’t see ahead! Anyway it wasn’t too bad and I taxied over to the ‘flight’, picked up my instructor (still trudging) and carried on. His nibs was delighted (another pupil had done it in 5hrs 20 though) and let me off for the day. So that was that, I wasn’t a record breaker, but was the first of the Cambridge bunch to go and two hours clear of the next ‘St Johns 3 flight’ man, which was something I phoned the news home that night, but the folks were unimpressed which was maybe just as well and kept my head from distending.
After two hours solo circuits and landing on the Saturday (being the only junior to have gone solo in the flight, I had a plane to myself all the time, instead of waiting for an instructor) I began to get some form of decency in my landings again, and things looked brighter, but I had passed through a miserable time when I thought I’d never be much good, and I must confess that Rhodes told me that if I hadn’t gone that afternoon, I might have been another week being just that sort of a cuss. As it was, the circuit before I went off, he’d said “do me a good one this time or we’ll pack up” and of course, it was a beauty of a landing.
The next week (the 3rd at Hatfield) proved to be hopeless for flying, for the fogs hung over the flat land and the sun hardly appeared even at midday, so we concentrated on lectures and the time wasted was amazing. There was none of the Cambridge ITW ‘behind the scenes’ high pressure organisation. The flying side obviously took precedence over ground instruction, and when flying was ‘off’ we just filled in time. We stayed for hours on end in the ‘pupils room’ watching the tigers parked in the fog outside, yarning and reading newspapers. I spent most of the time reading the excellent data about meteorology given in the Navigation Manual supplied as a reference book, so that when we later ‘touched’ on the subject of cyclones and wind tends and cloud forms, cold fronts and ‘adiabatic lapse rates’, I had it all at my fingertips. We did quite a lot of navigation in the form of ‘plotting’, under the care of a smiling eyed grey haired Mr Jenkins, known as ‘The Admiral’. He wasn’t held in high esteem, for he had a most painfully slow delivery and kept wandering off the track to quote the ‘merchant navy’, for from my observations, he must have been captain (maybe not) of a fast ‘fruiter’, maybe a ‘Fyffes Banana’ board (and had been torpedoed or mined off the Irish Coast maybe). He would give us orders re Routine Patrols with given wind velocities and we would plot the tracks. Debden-Arras-Rotterdam-Debden or such work out courses and estimated times of arrival etc and record same on ‘form 433A’ (a sort of miniature log). Then ground positions would be found, off track, and the new W/V would have to be found. Or the patrol would be curtailed at certain points, say position lines from lightships and the direct track and course and ground speed would then be required. It was all dead reckoning, with ‘triangles of velocities’ and parallel rule work on Mercators projections. It was interesting work and I like to go into great detail, but the majority just did the bare necessities (and they were almost all good at it, and we were complimented as a class) so I was often about last finished: still, I never once had to go back and correct anything, which was something. That and the practical instruction concerning the map reading and preparation for our cross country flights was all the navigation we did, apart from some instruction in the construction and use of Course and Speed Calculator Aeronautical compasses, Airspeed indicators, and their relative corrections, which were many.
‘Airmanship’ lectures covered the concertina’s courses of engines, rigging, construction, airmanship etc. The whole course (we were no 12 war course) had been cut down from twelve weeks to five so something had to be cut down. The flying hours were cut in half, the navigation was only practice in what we had learned in the telescoped ITW course and Cambridge and the armaments and signals were only allowed about 5 hours each for the whole course! Airmanship, then covered all the other subjects. The lectures included routine before flying, how to pick a plan, 101 things to do when you do a ‘forced landing’, distress and urgency signals, ground signs, navigation lights, internal combustion principles and dozens of little items which just cropped up! They were delivered mainly by a Mr Hoyle, a civvy and a perky little chap with thin hair, and a wit and knowledge, both superb. His father (he seemed 30 himself) had flown ‘Hannibals’ on the trips to Cairo and must have been a genius for he had ‘bounced Hannibal’ (a huge clumsy 4 engine a/c) over a car on one occasion. He himself was obviously brought up in the flying business, for he could answer anything and his snappy unassumed ‘cracks’ kept us awake.
We had another instructor, a Mr Henslow, a tall thin, round-shouldered chap with a twisted face, twisted into a grin usually, who wore a raglan tweed coat in class and had a dry voice and dryer humour. He could teach any of the subjects, but usually had us for signals, at which his sending was flawless. He had to speed us up from 6 to 8 words a minute in 5 hours, and did it by sending at 6 with the ‘letters’ each at the speed of 8s. Then he cut down the spacing, and there we were. I found myself among the top six or so each time in ‘buzzer’ work, but at Aldis there were many more ahead. There were two reasons for this: Alec (or Al The Southport comedian) and I took Aldis as a pair and stood well back from the bunch on the tarmac, before the hangers, where we received from his nibs, sending green flashes from the roof of the Flying School. The rest, bunched together, could each hear the others calling the letters and so made a fair ‘average’. Secondly, the cold wind made me blink my eyes, fixed on the lamp; so that three or four dots in a row with a blink in the middle just didn’t register. This sounds like whining, but I was still in the top third of the gang.
We used to have a break in these lectures lasting 30-45 minutes both in the morning and afternoon and would then rush like school kids to queue up for coffee or milk and buns at the wee canteen ‘outside’ in the great cold hanger, with its dozens of Tigers, its set Whitley (they were experimenting with De Hav vari pitch props) and its other assorted aircraft. Where two lads were pals, one rushed for the food whilst the other galloped eagerly to the pupils’ room for the day’s mail. This mail brought me regular and welcome letters from home (and nowhere else to speak of) but was very erratic, one letter (arranging a rendezvous with Sherwood) from Maidenhead, 40 miles away, taking five days and my ‘winter woollies’ and ‘knitted comforts’ from my anxious mother taking eleven days to arrive; the parcel was much sought at the home end and I was afraid it had gone in the Coventry smash up which occurred just then.
The first ‘day off’ I got (we had alternate Saturdays and Sundays) was a Saturday and as I had written to Sherwood to say I would hunt him up, I set off for White Waltham. I didn’t know the district at all but I got to London on a slow train, went straight by tube to Paddington and there waited hours for a connection to Maidenhead (and had a squint at the bomb damage outside) and then bussed to White Waltham; arrived there at 2pm, I found Harold had left (for home in Yorkshire as I found later) so I just came back. I set out to walk to Maidenhead and had almost reached there when a bus coming behind tooted. I looked to see a green touring bus and a beckoning driver, so I climbed a board. Inside I found two other airmen (GD), a couple of RE’s and an artilleryman. The busman was driving the bus to some film studios and had decided to give any servicemen lifts on the way. He dumped us on the main road west from London somewhere past Slough, and after a bit of a walk, I got aboard a ‘pantechnicon’ with some more lads aboard. This took e over Kew Bridge, round Putney to Tooting (or vice versa) and though I didn’t know London, I got a tube ticket which took me, on two buses and three tubes (because of tube blocks) round Holborn and St Paul’s to Kings Cross and thence home, with the odd piece of shrapnel falling on the train roof.
During the next week, I did nothing of importance and on the Sunday Alec and I walked around the district a bit in the winter sunshine, asked about trains north and went for a feed to the Waterend Barn in St Albans. This place is a huge place with a high wood timbered roof complete with artificial cobwebs and the whole interior timbered like the inside of a great wooden barn. The wood was old and worm eaten enough, but had bricks and stucco behind, and was patched and a bit phoney when you went into it. However, it has a great name and the food was good.
About this time, the third week, we were moved from our huts to a large house, known as Nast Hyde, about 20 mins walk from the gate of the Drome. It was reputed to be the original Bleak House and was a big rambling 2-3 storey Elizabethan house with attics, hut buildings, gabled ends and a bell tower. There must have been 30 odd rooms, mostly with some of the panelling intact, though most of it was boxed up. The grounds were a bit worn and weedy, but the fancy fir trees up the drive gave the place some standing and appearance, even though its ‘ancient glory’ had been built in since its inception (and had a yellow modernistic horror right next door). We were pushed seven in a room here, on the same old wire beds in the same old army blankets, and the washing facilities were almost impossible. One wash basin in a room under the stairs had a quota of eight trying to get shaved every morning and you had to put your name down for a bath, there being only enough water for three per night. There being between 30 and 50 of us there, left some query as to what the odd ones did in lieu of a bath per week! The oak panelled living room was terribly crowded at nights, and so never became more than a bare room for drinking the nightly cocoa in. The previous owners (they’d lent the place actually) had left a Beckstein grand piano behind for us; a beautiful instrument with a lovely tone and touch, which was pounded unmercifully by barnstormer type pianists of our crowd, with the loud pedal tied down. Sometimes on a Sunday morning off when everyone else was either on parade or frowsing in bed, I would wander about the keys and wish I could really play it, but normally the sound of it was the bare of Nast Hyde existence. There was also a magnificent radio gramophone, a 25 guinea affair from what I could see, but there was a valve blown and it never got mended: so we had the caretakers hideous tinny gramo until it broke down and gave us peace. These were the drawbacks to the place, but I liked the walks to and fro from the Station.
On the Friday, I got up solo for an hour and told I could practice a few ‘steep’ turns, as demonstrated. I spent the time sweeping from left hand vertical turns to right handed ones, spinning down my hard gained height, and generally getting the feel of things. My first spin I expected to be quite a trial, but I experienced none of the terrors I’d been told of. I just stalled, shoved the rudder over and she fell over sideways and there was the ground ahead, spinning round fast. I’d done it with Rhodes anyway and as far as I could see there was no unpleasant sensation, though the manual says, “it is no disgrace in the RAF to dislike spinning”. Height is lost at a great rate in a spin which is a ‘stable’ corkscrewing movement which doesn’t get any faster, so after a few turns I pushed on opposite rudder and pulled out of the dive. In steep turns you go round the horizon at a great pace and your controls, rudder and elevator have swapped jobs as far as the turn is concerned, so the result of the hour was the first dawning of an instinctive use of the controls and a sort of ‘flying feeling’ which led me to whipping the old bus around naturally and to come out of spins in the right direction: at the end, I came in feeling I had really flown for the first time, and with a splitting headache and queer tummy from the excessive dizziness that the turns produce.
The Saturday (23 Nov 1940) (3rd weekend at Hatfield) was my day off, and I had arranged in a very loose way to meet Harold Sherwood in Paddington Station, so accompanies by Al Blythe I walked to the Barnet Bypass, which skirts the drome and there we tried our luck ‘thumbing’ a lift. The first car to pass ignored us, but the next, a small standard stopped, and the driver said he was going to Watford. We tentatively asked what the driver’s attitude to hitchhikers was, and he assured us that all were welcome, and that he intended to travel by car when he was called up (he seemed 30) and also a lot of stereotyped remarks about pulling together. At Watford we wandered quite a bit before we finally got a lift at some traffic lights in the outskirts. This driver was a tradesman of sorts in a Standard ‘9’ and whilst he seemed only too glad to give us a lift he made numerous references to the practice as ‘cadging lifts’. He dumped us at the end of Harrow Row (Wembley I think) and we took the underground straight to Paddington. The damage to be seen on this ‘surface’ line wasn’t very much, and consisted of about half a dozen demolished houses per mile and one damaged station, with rubble heaped on one line and heaps of broken glass on the platform.
We met Sherwood, who was very glad to see us, as soon as we came into the station and we ‘tubed’ to Leicester Square and thence to the Strand Corner House for a coffee. Poor old Hal had not yet recovered his enthusiasm for flying, which totally left him when his brother was killed in a flying accident: he just didn’t care whether he passed out or not and even a flying trip home to Driffield over a weekend hadn’t helped. He had been put back a course, due to an injured finger and SSQ (which with the overlap amounted to 3 weeks) and had failed a signals test, which was bad, for I knew him to be one of the smartest lads from Cambridge, particularly in signals. He knew London quite well so we went on a tour of inspection. The city, as we crossed towards the Mall, seemed full of uniforms and mostly officers. There were some business men and in the coding houses, lots of middle class lady shoppers and indeed the vast majority of all we saw were middle class people, going about the rather clear pavements looking not at all worried. The Admiralty Arch was blocked except for the footpath with masses of barbed wire and a useful looking AA gun was mounted on top (looked like a Bofar or whatever it’s called).
There were, behind the wire, one on each side of the arch, two of the toughest old home guards I could have imagined, with bayoneted rifles, standing ‘at ease’. One was a great eighteen stone man with huge shoulders, glasses, a glowering expression, and a square jowelled jaw and face that could have been American. The other was a raw-boned left 6ft veteran with grizzled moustache and shaggy brows, high cheekbones and seamed brown face with a serene and steady stone-faced expression and piercing eyes, who could have been a highlander. They both, in their silent way, conveyed an atmosphere of cold, but fierce anger, of lethal efficiency and total carelessness of themselves. As if they had been roused from their peace of declining years, against their wish, and were now going to make no mistakes about this war. We went along the Mall, with its roofless and bashed in houses, to Buckingham Palace, round the chipped dry fountain and then down to Birdcage Walk. The Palace seemed undamaged though we knew it had been hit and looked no different except that there were tons of sandbagging, no visible guard, and the sentry boxes inside the locked gates. We fed well at Lyons again and then went down by the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Cathedral, both of which had the masonry badly chipped and splattered by shrapnel and had many of the lead glass windows twisted or missing likewise. Oliver Crom seemed pretty well all right and Big Ben’s tower was unmarked. We heard his famous chimes as we walked along the deserted Embankment, where there seemed to be a bomb whacked building every two blocks. The bombs here seemed to have been really large ones, or else dropped in clusters. There were one or two places where great black hunks had been blasted away from the Embankment Wall itself and the stone face and central filling were still stuck solidly in one piece. There were great-levelled spaces on the south side here, where blocks of warehouses had been destroyed. Waterloo Bridge was a fuzzy block of wood and metal, the new bridge being built alongside the original and between it and the Houses of Parliament there was a strange structure. It looked like the two ends of one huge span across the river, which neither began or ended in a roadway, but merely stretched from the Embankment to the waste on the other side. It was made mainly of wood, with great steel girders on top and was of ‘four-lane’ width.
We left the Embankment with its familiar bronze dolphin lampposts and went up past a four-storey building with the centre reduced to rubble, onto the Strand and along Fleet Street. The place was deserted, which could not wholly be due to being Saturday afternoon. We ‘bussed’ back from St Paul’s, which showed little signs of its damage, and then tubed to Hyde Park Corner. The traffic past Marble Arch contained quite a number of fast taxis, but was otherwise just a trickle, and I’d often seen more on the Kilmarnock Road at home.
The walk through the Park brought us into the clear sky where we could see the Barrage Balloons and at that moment they were only about half as thick again as at Glasgow. In the muddy park we passed batteries of great 4.5” AA guns, with their attendant swaddies in wooden huts and the attendant skivvies hunting the swaddies and the odd Australians etc who were wandering around. We fed at another Lyons Corner house and were amused to hear the loudspeaker announce on the change of music “5.30 and all’s well”.
Then we went back to Kings Cross by tube.
Alec had not seen the ‘underworld’ dwellers before, so he felt most depressed at the sight. There were people everywhere: on the unused escalators, along the edges of corridors, in heaps in unused galleries and in chalked off pens (up to 7.30:7.30 onwards) on the platforms which left just enough room for passengers to avoid stopping on them, there were people of all the lower classes, going to bed in their rag heaps, rugs or blankets, undressing, eating, gossiping. They were mainly women, but in spite of posters “Be a man, leave it to the women” there were numerous strange beery looking men, weedy men, robust and brutish men, foreigners and blue joweled Jews: all mixed in a heterogeneous mass, with the children romping around or eating fish and chips and doughnuts. When a train passed in or out there was a heavenly movement in the hot stuffiness and then it settled back into a dead stupefying breathlessness: what it as like after the trains stopped in the small hours, God only knows. I didn’t quite feel Alec’s sympathy for their sufferings, because it seemed to me that the majority had never lived in better circumstances, and it was merely London’s slums uncovered. But it would have been ghastly for anyone caught in London with nowhere else to go in a raid.
The next week, the fourth, began with bad visibility and bumpy air conditions, so there being no solo, I went instrument flying with an instructor who was having a rest cure from operational bombing. Instrumental flying is no fun and not easy either. Under a green canvas hood, with bright light showing at the edges, the dimly glowing luminous instruments were very hard to read and the spidery compass was well nigh invisible. Also, the weather being too bumpy for solo, played old harry with the airspeed. There was no Sperry horizon, so my progress was like a switchback. However, I seemed to do satisfactorily in turning on to courses, and my allowances for turning error and swish were accurate to a degree that surprised me too: I’d studied the causes of these 20 errors and just instinctively straightened out when I thought it was about right, and it was most pleasant to see the needle then swing dead into line with the grid wires. The instructor got bored and did a slow roll to amuse himself and though I got the hood back in time, my straps were loose and I shot out of my seat when hanging upside down, and the muck fell off the floor into my face and petrol streaked whitely past my head from the tank. It was a bad roll but it was my first and it was quite a thrill to dangle underneath and wonder what was going to happen next. We landed at Radlett drome where the first Handley Page Halifax, a great 4 engined bomber of conventional design was settling on the tarmac and then went home.
The weather remained bumpy over Wednesday so I continued doing instrument flying without much improvement, but on the last trip Rhodes did a couple of loops and some stalled turns for my benefit, and allowed me to do likewise and then got me to do a powered landing which ‘clipped the daisies’ beautifully.
So on Thursday, though windy with some bumps, off I went solo to practice my first aerobatics: quite a number of people had gone solo by now, but I think I was the first to be allowed off without any preliminary ‘circuits’ dual (after 3 hrs solo).
Having climbed to 4000 ft to windward, I noted my position with reference to half a dozen landmarks, pushed down the nose and looped: just like that. I did as he’d shown me, got up enough speed (115 mph), pulled back on the stick, opened the throttle full, and controlled the ‘firmness’ of my seat by tightening the loop whenever I felt myself ‘coming out’, then shut off when I could see the inverted horizon and let gravity do the rest. Then I tried a stalled turn, pulling the nose up, ruddering fiercely, centralised after she’d fallen ‘sideways round’ and pulled out of the dive. That was that. I played about like this for most of an hour, quite enjoying the change from steady flying: it was strange at first to go heading into the boundless blue sky (which seems much darker up there, with the brilliant sun blotting out a great area) and then see the earth appear upside down, dive straight at the fields, whistling down with the engine off and then pull out. I ended up happily doing double and treble loops, cutting my slipstream every time, with a stall turn to begin and end with. I landed in the satisfaction of knowing that no-one else was doing aerobatics on the station ‘cept little stay at home me, for the senior course had been posted, some to Cranwell on Bombers and some to Fighter Training Stations. From then on I developed into the station’s leading crazy stunt pupil. My landings deteriorated again to the annoyance of old Rhodes, but my confidence rose and I got streets ahead of the ‘route’ in flying ability (many of them had not gone solo yet) and I never had the slightest trouble in finding my whereabouts. Fact was, I couldn’t see how anyone could get lost just flying around, yet Owen, a chap in the same flight ended up in an east London Fighter drome, and two others made miraculous precautionary landings just before dark.
Then the inevitable happened, everybody gets the idea when they’re learning something that at one point they know all there is to know about it: so they get careless. I knew that and I tried hard to avoid this stage: but being ahead of all this gang of ‘picked’ lads (in stunts only of course) it caught me napping.
There was a fellow Sapsed with us who was a farmer and his farm was only seven miles away or so. They (the wilder elements of our gang) arranged one day to go as a bunch in their crates and ‘shoot the place up’. Sapsed hadn’t gone solo and the others could hardly fly straight and level, so I romped over when passing and being no-one else around I thought maybe I should shoot on up so they wouldn’t be disappointed.
I lectured myself on the dangers and need for care, and then dived on the house and pulled out 100ft up not too good, but I’d seen the position of telegraph wires trees etc, so I kicked into a stalled turn (very clever) and dived again. This was a good run, 20ft off the chimneys and as I zoomed up with full engine, I looked round to see the effect on the inmates, whilst doing another stalled turn at the top of the zoom at 500ft or less.
Now a stalled turn is really an incipient spin, in which you just keep speed for control, and correct when you’ve ‘gone about’. My stall was complete and first thing I knew, I was spinning with the controls useless. It’s a horridly helpless business, for only the proper action will stop the spin, and then you have to get out of the dive. I always thought I was slow to think and react, but that time, I diagnosed spin, kicked the rudder over, watched the revolving garden (which was coming up at a furious pace, the engine being on stall) straighten out and just pulled up over the telephone wires and staggered across two fields 20 ft up, below the tree level. Considering the time it takes to spin 20 ft with the engine on, I figure something like one third of a second was all I had for clearance.
It was a lesson I needed, and which few people get till it’s too late. The others flew around at low altitudes many times in the following days, doing turns and things, but me I climbed back up to 3000ft where my developing instinct told me I ought to be, and there would do anything anybody else did and then some more, but larking about downstairs was just foolishness, and not what planes were built for.
About this time the exams began to loom up, and I was a bit worried, but not about the exams themselves, but about my attitude to them: I hadn’t done a bit of work at home since coming to Hatfield. In fact I was pretty miserable altogether, though I used to argue with myself that I had no reason to be. The gang wasn’t ‘right’, they weren’t clean as a whole and their eternal unremitting gutter talk and outlook wore me down.
I spent my evenings hanging around in Nast Hyde wasting time, or occasionally feeding with Alec (another like me) in the barn. We spent our time scheming to get home by hook or by crook. My idea was to get hold of a car and blitz through to Glasgow, but those plans were scrapped when the home front sent news of the road conditions. However, I bottled my ‘yearns’ fairly solidly behind a ‘dourish’ face and the flying gave me an outlet.
The evening when I went up late with the layer cloud at 2000ft for instance. The idea was to do circuits and ‘bumps’, but the sun was dying in a clear sky, and it was quite dark on the ground, relatively: and the curved edge of the marbly cloud ceiling was crimsony pink, so I kept climbing till I was underneath the cloud, then kept climbing. Into the woolly whiteness I went, and swam out of the foamy surface into the golden sunset. It was wonderful to be up there alone, just me and the Tiger bathed in slanting sunlight, with the pink cloudlet sheet below, and the RAF and all its sordidness in the gloom below that.
I enjoyed my next half hour immensely. We’d tip over, the yellow undersides of the wings would gleam in the sun, then down in to the misty surface which melted before me, into its cold fading whiteness, then back stick and zoom up into the golden sky, over into the blazing western sunset, then down: right through the cloud layer this time down to the gloom below till the scenery appeared in the mist ahead with showed the underside was approaching, then up and over into the pinkness again. The top of the loop just brought me clear of the cloud into the sunlight before plunging down. Then we’d fly about on the surface, charging the cloud heads, which disappeared into a ‘propeller halo’ and reappeared behind us. It was all very satisfactory and rather malagous; up in the clear golden air and sunlight with my own company. Climbing through the obscuring cloud to the glory of clear air and sunset and leaving the ground in the shadows, unsuspicious of the beauty above. Still, I had to cut off and plunge back to the drome in the shadows.
During the fifth week we had our examinations. These proved to be of a very practical nature, which suited me, though not some others who were used to swatting the stuff up or cribbing. The navigation paper was a stiff 2-hour paper, half marks of which went for a plotting question concerning the practical working out of tracks, courses, ETAs, changes of wind etc on a triangular reconnaissance. The signals were morse buzzer at 8 words/min and Aldis lamp at 6, receiving and sending. The armaments exam was given to each one of us individually by a warrant officer from Group HQ, who really knew his job and told us more than he asked us. Aircraft recognition was a series of photographs to put names to. Airmanship was a written exam, concerning procedure after forced landing, ground signs and engine faults. All interesting subjects, so I considered that I’d pass all right, though there were others who’d done a lot more cramming.
During the armaments course we had been given an opportunity of firing 40 rounds or so from a Vickers gas/operated, at about 40 yards. And holding a bucking Vickers, with your chin cushioned on the fist holding the spade grip, onto a target was more difficult than I would have thought. I did quite well actually, and was very accurate at judging ‘bursts’. And at revolver practice (with 38 colts) at only 10 yards, when the majority were covering the size of a bucket bottom, I managed to put four shots into an inch square.
Just before these exams, I went on my first cross-country, or rather my ‘triangle’. This was a triangular course, Hatfield, Halton, Henlow and home of about 90 miles. We set off on the first day we’d had for weeks, at 2000ft over the drome, we could see the whole undulating patchwork plane right to the horizon in all directions, the sky was a dark blue bowl with the last of the planets shining through and the only cloud was a line of Cerro cumulus glowing, just below the early sun. We could even see the tall white chimney at Dunstable over which we would pass on the second leg. The course (worked out by CSC from the meteorological wind report) proved to be dead correct (which didn’t quite suit the instructor; they always gave a wrong wind, to get your practice).
Holding the track was ridiculously easy, and I could follow every inch on the map by landmarks, woods, road formations and railways. In due course we saw Halton drome over a long shoulder, made a circuit, set the new course on the compass ring, waited for the needle to settle, corrected, then off on the next leg. Here the Dunstable chimney was a wonderful landmark, for we had to pass bang over the top. The last leg we snored over the ground with the wind behind and after a short stop for a cup of tea (made by the blasphemous timekeeper every morning and afternoon) Rhodes let me go round solo. This time I had to make corrections varying from 5 degrees to 15degrees on each course, but in every case the first correction was all that was required: I was disappointed in a way, but glad to find it so easy.
The weather got bumpy again, so the cross country to Sywell was put off for a day on account of the storm, but I did another hour of solo aerobatics, ‘low flying’ amongst the jumble of cloud heaps on the surface of a layer of altocumulus getting all the thrills of streaking along in deep crevasses and lifting on a wingtip over a gleaming turret and diving into the next dark channel: followed ever by the ‘dartboard’ of gleaming rainbow which the unveiled sun painted against the misty whiteness of the cloud.
This ‘larking about’ seemed to solidify my control of the bus, and after spinning through the cloud, I pulled off a series of lovely landings, just couldn’t go wrong.
The next day brought tragedy. Rhodes took me on the Sywell trip. The wind was against us on the way out so the forty odd miles took nearly an hour, but the holding of the track was as easy and definite as before. I was worried a bit about landing on a strange drome for the first time, but I came in over the windsock and touched down to a lovely landing. Sywell was a wild joint compared with the orderly precision of Hatfield, tigers (it was an EFT9 too) taxied unheeding about in all directions in the centre of the mud-bordered field, and periodically a great Wellington came out of a repair hanger in one corner and thundered off into the sky.
Mr Rhodes found some peacetime friends and went to the officer’s mess to celebrate, while I hunted out a canteen where I had sausage rolls and tea (with a lot more sugar than we were getting at Hatfield).
An hour later we took off, Rhodes in a very merry mood, and I came back uneventfully: when we landed, Moffat came running up to tell us that Owen was dead. Owen was Rhodes’ other pupil and had been on his triangle with a new instructor Mr Holland from Singapore. They had collided with a Magister in mid-air in which a young sailor of the Fleet Air Arm and his instructor were up from Luton on his first flight.
Rhodes blanched and cursed himself for not sending me with Holland: and for not suspending Owen before (Morrie had no sense of direction and once got lost and flew right through the London Balloon barrage to land at a Southern Fighter Station).
This first real crash made quite an impression on everyone. Conelly had landed 10ft up and dived into the ground and someone else had tipped a Lysander on its back, but now for the first time a familiar face was missing: the bed next to mine was empty: and they were all a wee bit scared about it all.
Since nobody else felt steady enough it fell to me to write to Normans people. I took all evening to compose that single sheet but I think it was all that it could be. His father later wrote me a pathetic personal letter asking for any details I could give, for the Air Ministry had only told them baldly of his death, not even stating whether it was instantaneous or not, and in answer to this letter he sent me a copy of the local paper which described the military funeral given, with Norman under a Union Jack on a gun carriage, with a firing party and guard of honour.
The visibility being too bad for solo, Rhodes, who didn’t care for aerobatics, got Jamieson, another instructor, to show me slow rolls and rolls off the top, for he knew I had been trying to roll myself (when I first tried, I just blindly thought ‘here goes’ and held the stick over. Rolling feels all-wrong at first, and I was most apprehensive when she got right on her beam ends – and stuck there! So I levelled out again, looped and tried her rolling right ways up from the inverted position instead. Unfortunately I left the throttle open while dangling upside down and the engine choked, cut altogether and kept me upside down with the stopped prop in front of me and all the mud of the floor in my goggles, I pulled back and dived vertically, remembered and closed the throttle, she fired, and all was well. Jameson was a ‘stunter de lux’ and once above the clouds he had me doing rolls and off the tops after the first demonstration.
I recognised the place we came down below the clouds and got him home immediately: and next day I had new manoeuvres to amuse myself with and had the fun of being the only pupil on the station who could roll. Right till the end of the course the others used all to ask me how it was done or what was wrong when such and such happened.
That night Peter (the former) asked all of us who had shot up his house to come to tea and off we went in two of the four private cars which contrived to be owned by the pupils (all eleven of us) up the Barnet Bypass, thro’ Welwyn Garden City (of Shredded Wheat fame), past the viaduct, our bed landmark, and up to the farmhouse by the pond, into whose little orchard I had so nearly dived. We were quite an array round the big table, with its gleaming white linen to set off the dark uniforms and cleaned buttons. And what food!
We had huge helpings of tongue and second helpings as a matter of course: there were some baked scones and cakes, unlimited lashings of butter and real tea, which was one of the greatest treats for all Hatfield, our tea was always stewed and sugarless.
Peter, the most profligate of us all, had somehow kept up in his family the belief that he was quite temperate, so he made a remark about ‘pictures’ and we all went down to the ‘Checkers’ pub at the crossroads. There, very bored and fed up, trying to see where the fun came in, trying to follow the senseless conversation (and listening to a soldiers graphic description of my aerobatic performance that morning) I got outside of about five pints of beer, which was an effort and soured my stomach, and two double whiskies, all by way of experiment. At the end of the evening I felt no ‘lift’, no ‘sparkle’, no nothing and the lack of head steadiness and general disgust and discomfort gave a nett loss: so I went out into the frosty moonlight and fresh night air, put two fingers down my throat and got rid of it all. My recovery was instantaneous and I went back to wet nurse the rest back to Nast Hyde. Peter’s car went over the grass for some distance, cutting a corner on the way home in the fog, and some heads were bumped.
I did my solo trip to Sywell and this time left my prop turning, and just got back before the fog closed down: flying above the fog bank, you could see the landmarks (when looking away from the sun) like objects at the bottom of a pool of muddy water, but in the bank, all was fuzzy. And I had to come down on the way back, as I was flying into the sun. At less than 300 ft I found the river (and also that my course was nearly 10 degrees out, so the wind had changed down there) and flew along it to the right bend, then headed for Hatfield. Over Luton, despite the presence of the drome, I kept low and thought I’d have to go back, but suddenly saw the silhouette of planes against a bright patch in the fog, which must have been the tarmac. So I carried on and the fog lightened enough for me to find Hatfield twenty miles further on.
In the evening, I was allowed up to do ‘local flying only’ and on climbing (as usual) through the clouds, found the setting sun on the wrong side! I’d reversed the grid ring on my compass when putting on the wind (a thing I always did when ‘local’ flying, in case I had to ‘forced land’)
At the end of the seventh week (it should have lasted 5 weeks) propeller swinging instruction, the Flight Sergeant came for me in the pupils’ room, and left me outside the Commanding Officers’ room! I couldn’t think what on earth it was about, but had a notion it was about leave as I had 35 hours in, and had been seeing the CFI on the chance of even a weekend. But when I got in, the CO held out his hand, and enthusiastically congratulated me on being top in the exams! I was amazed and speechless; he produced a paper that proved my aggregate was 91.3%, the next being 87% and the third man being 84%, which was a good lead, the average for the whole sixty of No. 12 course being around 60.
The Co was quite chatty and said it was ‘a really good show’ and hoped it was ‘the start of a succession of successes which would end in a commission’. This was very satisfactory, and brightened me up immensely; I was too pleased to notice at the time, but I afterwards found I was one of only two 100%’s in signals, was top in aircraft recognition with 98%, top in navigation by quite a lead, with 185 out of 200, nearly top in airmanship, 173, and the other subjects to match! The fellows didn’t seem much surprised, but just took it for granted that that was what I would do.
That night I did have something to write home about?
Since we were off early that day, a lot of the lads living in the North of England (including Alec) made a dash for home. I felt bleak when they had gone, but it was useless my trying it in a day and a half. I had agreed to go on a dance with ‘some of the lads’ in Welwyn Garden and off we went. It proved to be a works dance, in which the office staff had decided to fill the blanks with airmen (or rather ‘Cadets’) through Roy Whitehead who was ‘walking out’ one of them. It was the first ‘spree’ I’d been at since I had joined the RAF, so I enjoyed the dancing, but I thought little of the girls, who were a small-viewed father catty lot, though very nice girls compared to what the boys usually ‘picked up’.
We stayed the night at one of the girls’ aunts’ house, where six of us cadets slept in 3 feather beds whilst the aunts slept on the floor. It was father like my dream of the air force, when we were sitting, all cleaned up, at breakfast, having bacon and eggs, fine tea and a white cloth. And the thing that satisfied me most was it brought out the best in the boys (Tommy ’O’ O’Shaughnessy, Chris Reynolds, Roy Whitehead, Jack Parnam, Ernie White and me) and made them behave like gentlemen. Yes, that was my greatest disappointment, the general degeneracy, vulgarity and viciousness of the UT pilots.
Sunday was rather bleak: after that fine breakfast we passed the local L.D.V.’s having a mock battle with paper bags and milk bottles, and hitchhiked back to Nast Hyde. There we hung about, went to lunch at the ‘drome’, and then the rest went to London, and my pals being on their ‘home dash’, I hung about some more, then went to the Waterend Barn for tea. The old oak place was bright with coloured Chinese lanterns for Xmas, but I was disconsolately alone in my corner.
The next ten days flew by, for the weather was good, and I piled in the hours, morning and afternoon, for the new course was in and our lectures were finished. On one ‘field day’ I did 31/2 hours solo aerobatics right off the reel, just coming down in one crate, finding another parked and filled, and being keen, going up in it. Then in the afternoon I had to fly with Rhodes to Henley-on-Thames and back under the hood (touching down in the White Waltham flights field) because my solo hours had got ahead of my dual (181/2-14)
(Usual proportion 1:2)
On one evening flying late to get my hours in, I got quite a start when a lost Anson kept getting on my tail, so I led him home and then went off again…
Some of these long mornings were almost too much. I love aerobatics and so did little else, and three or four hours made me quite dizzy sometimes.
I was now the authority amongst the pupils, and was always being collared for detailed ‘instructions’ though most never did get as far as slow rolls. So I hit my turns and dives as hard as they came. I was as near to black out as a Tiger would take me, in one or two pullouts; and another time or two, when tearing her back in ‘roll off the tops’ (pull out at130mph) the flattening pressure on my chest collapsed some mucous tube or something down in my lung and made me cough violently. This would tickle most of the evening, but never seemed to do any harm.
This rush was all on account of the chance of leave. First it was ‘official’ we’d get off after 36 hours, then 42 hours, and just when I’d done 44 it was put up to 50 hours minimum, and /I didn’t even swear when the fog came down, or when they (Collins and co.) wouldn’t let me have a plane!
Rhodes was trying to get me some leave on compassionate grounds, but the fact that there was no official Christmas Leave made it difficult. We’d had a chat or two in the forced landing field (with the partridges carelessly wandering under the wing: after the instructors ‘trip’ to the field with the pub in it) and he was getting really friendly in his lawyer fashion.
Then on the Monday morning before Christmas, (I’d packed my small haversack just in case) Rhodes got me an interview with the C.F.I. who gaily signed my (prepared) three day pass, saying ‘You’ve earned this yourself; I hope you enjoy it’.
It was the only three day pass on the Station, and carried a free railway warrant with it!
The journey north was a nightmare, dark all the way, with some drunken Scottish soldiers going home, and ditto-young Canadians shouting enthusiastic slogans, and a crowd of midland workers heading north and standing in the lightless carriages.
But I didn’t really care; I’d had a big fed in the kings’ Cross restaurant and knew I’d get home sometime. It was grand to get into Edinburgh even at that early hour, and /I just had to get into the businessman’s train and there I was in old cold Queen St. at ten to nine!
I didn’t feel quite real, dodging around the old streets, just the same after four months; and the first thing I did was call at the office (just in before nine!) and after a short hello to the gang, phoned home for breakfast; which I was enjoying half an hour later, back in the family again as if I’d left the day before.
Oh but it was grand: to have carpet slippers on; to lounge about regardless of time, and best of all that intangible feeling of comfort and clearly well being which was so lacking in service life.
I spent the morning just chatting; the afternoon luxuriating in a wonderful bed, and in the evening went to the Plaza. We just drifted along and found there was a Christmas Eve ball in progress. My partner had been hibernating too, so we really enjoyed the evening finding all kinds of old friends among the crowd, and getting home at a reasonable hour complete with paper hats (having a good car completely at my disposal was wonderful too, and after we’d had to scrounge lifts on lorries raised my self-esteem back up a bit).
Christmas day was spent quietly, with a few visits to relations and a fine feed of roast lamb, and hours of quiet chat and comfort; and the next morning flew, so that it seemed no time until I was on the train south with Billy who had been home on a 48 hour pass.
The southbound trip was on L.M.S. and was consequently very late, so that I didn’t get to Hatfield until nine; but the Euston R.T.O. stamped my pass, so that was all right.
Everyone was in high spirits that Friday, and the weather was clear and cold. I had one hour to put in, so I went round ‘the triangle’ backwards without any calculated courses, (after doing the gambit of all the aerobatics).
It was fine, flying under a high canopy of cloud, with little snow clouds forming far below on the northern buttresses of Dunstable Downs.
I paid a visit to Whipsnade and skimmed the hilltop whilst inspecting the disconsolate polar bears and buffalos etc and then wandered back to do a peach of a landing for the last one. I wasn’t long down when Rhodes stepped out of a plane with a great hare by the hind legs, which caused a great laugh. It seemed to have died of fright in the forced landing field.
That afternoon we were told our postings had come through, and that we would be going home, on leave, so we packed all kit, and next morning rushed feverishly around getting our clearance sheets signed, a process which dragged on until one o’clock before we could be interviewed by the CFI (Sq Ldr Pedley).
We waited in a long queue, rather nervously and one by one were told where we were going, what the school thought of us, and what grade our flying had been.
Half a dozen of my pals were told they stood a good chance of getting a commission and one or two (notably Birkbeck, a stunter of my calibre with whom I went shooting at Cambridge) so I was on tenterhooks in case I fell below their standard. When I did salute his nibs, he looked at me hard and then said “Haven’t been doing too well, have you?” I couldn’t think whether he meant it or not, so after a bit he went on “top in ground subjects were you? Well you’d have got ‘exceptional’ from me, if you’d only had some previous flying hours. Go on like that if you can: you’ll get your commission all right” Then he read out my flying report and recommended “An exceptionally able pilot, strongly recommended for Single Seat fighters, but capable of handling any type of machine” Zowiee!! I could have rolled a Wellington upside down through the hangar in that state of mind. Fighters! I’d hoped and hoped they’d let me do my fighting by myself. I did everything else best by myself, and to slam around the sky behind a Rolls Royce, keeping the Hun away from my home, I’d fight harder faster and longer than if I was just trucking high explosive to Berlin in the dark.
And we were going to Kenya to train, Birkbeck and I and six others, so what could be better. Visions of khaki shorts and red eagles, glaring sun and leather cheeks, sunset and sand and wings, over the Pyramids against the Wops. But apart from all this I really did want to go to Kenya, just to change the nip and see what it was all about. Most of the others were going to Shawbury, near Shrewsbury (where Billy then was) to train on Oxfords, wood-constructed and covered twins (which had some dangerous characteristics, 4000ft spin recovery and the like, but were modern and clean, good machines to train on). Amongst them went Alec Blythe, Roy Whitehead and most of the others I’d got to know. Johnny Smith, the insurance agent I’d been with at Cambridge (who bet me a feed he would solo before I did and took 23 hours to my 8, and would have been suspended elsewhere than Hatfield) and Peter Sapsed, the farmer of Knebworth and others were recommended for single engine machines only and were coming to Wilmslow, a sort of kicking off place, with our bunch and had been told they might be headed for Rhodesia.
So Saturday saw the last of Hatfield, with its mud spots, its waitresses, its CGI, its Beaufighers, its ‘Yellow Peril’ and its prop testing Whitley and spitfire. Rhodes left me with the advice “trust in God and keep your airspeed up” and an Edinburgh lad and I left for a dash to Peter burgh in Johns little standard 9 with all our kit. We got to Peter burgh in time to see the train flash through non-stop (2 or 3pm) and had to go to a flick to pass the time till 1. And bleak place it proved to be, and we were fed up by 9pm when a train finally arrived for Grantham where we found one carriage in a siding which went right through to Edinburgh (we managed to sleep tho’ which shortened it immensely). Edinburgh had the best tea and the finest snack canteen I’d found anywhere in the country (which was just as well, with four hours to wait).
So there I was in Glasgow again over the New Year. Things were quiet indeed and I spent most of the five days in the house just paddling around and yarning: didn’t even pinch the car. I walked around the family circuits in the evening and one afternoon went further a field in the snow. The snow had clung to the trees and the still glooming black and white against a close misty sky of purple and blue. It was such an evening as must be peculiar to the land, for later on I was to miss that very same gloaming, and that misty warmth that make the sky a sky, and not an eternal nothingness. That time home had its highlights and its blank glooms, but was a much needed rest, a sort of haven where nerves and reactions could clack off and not feel they would be called on for a little while. I was definitely a bit more nervous than when I left. Little incidents (like running over a paper bag in the car which I thought was a great lump of stone about to remove the exhaust) kept me on the jump and wouldn’t let me slide around ‘without bothering’ as I had a habit of doing before. When I had to go off again on the Friday morning, I was twice as solid, twice as ‘deep’ and much more ‘rational’ to myself.
There had been a fall of snow and the landscape was beautiful in the sunshine though two ladies in the compartment kept each other thrilled by morbid bombing stories. But Manchester was a fitting prelude to the most miserable fortnight of service I had yet seen. We crawled in darkness into what had been Victoria station, but was now a small fragment of platform under a twisted wreck of roof girders. From here I had to carry my kit bag and pack all the way to the station at the other end of the town, asking my way a dozen times in the mile long trek. The city didn’t look too bad, but it was too dark to see. And there were no taxis nor trams nor buses. When I got to this other station, the connection was gone and not one till 12pm. The porters and station men were quite useless (for I got a train at 10pm by asking the engine driver) and one directed a soldier ‘straight over there’, so that the poor chap walked right off the platform and fell with full kit and rifle onto the rails that ran right across his path.
Whilst waiting and having some tea, I talked to some pioneer corps chaps who were acting as demolition squads in the city. They were having a grim time, pulling bodies and bits of bodies, dozens at a time, from the rubble.
Still alone, I got out at Wilmslow, found my way another dark mile and ended up by what appeared to be a concentration camp, with high wire netting fence, topped by barbed wire.
The place seemed deserted, but a guard challenged me and pointed out the guardroom, where a bloke was detailed to show me the right hut. This hero dragged me, and my kitbag, half through that great frozen spread-eagled camp and back and got lost in the process. The camp consisted of spread out rows of huts with shelters (water filled and frozen) between, living long roads and wide drill squares and everything was dark and dead and frost-bound. Finally we got back to where we started, and he found the right hut to be about 20 yards away. The lights didn’t work, so I had to open the stove to see to get my pack off and would have slept on the floor (thinking myself to be alone) when somebody snored. My query revealed old Peter, who told me where the main switch was, and the lights revealed a score of sleepers, including John B and the rest of our bunch who’d all turned in ‘cos it was so cold (it was 11.30 too)
The next five days were painful indeed. Wilmslow was just a great clearing station. We had no parades, no roll calls, and no inspections. One had the feeling that no one knew or cared who was there and that we were all lost ‘dead-letters’. We found our way to meals, which were dished up to us in the old Babbacombe queue system, we used mess tins to drink from for the first time (we soon bought some tin mugs and there was no distinction between General Duties men and ourselves, which was pretty thick, for they were a scruffy bunch, dirty of body and mind, who were thoroughly enjoying the frowzy living conditions. We lived in narrow army huts crammed with wire beds and heated by smoky little stoves, which had to be kept full (usually of coke, despite fumes) to keep the place warmed, against the frost which gripped the camp. Our wash place was a hut at the back with filthy basins and no plugs, and only cold water, which was shut off the second day when the pipes froze and burst. The blankets were thick with coal dust and muck and the floors likewise, and we sat indoors all day and yarned or played cards. Nothing seemed to be happening, and there seemed no administrative staff at all except the swaggering NCOs who were ‘in charge’ of the place. And I was more fed up than anyone else. For at lunch the first day, we had tinned beef and I must have gotten a touched bit, for that night my internal system simply exploded. I was as sick as a dog and had acute diarrhea to go with it: and feeling as low as I did, the cold latrines were the last straw. The following days I felt like death, and lay on my bed under a blanket most of the time, manfully going to meals, getting some dry bread or a spoon or two of porridge and then having to bolt. I don’t remember ever having felt so hopelessly miserable before. On the second last night a good Samaritan, Ronnie Bell, lugged me off to try and find the MO. I hadn’t the guts to go myself: just didn’t care anyway. It took just over an hour to find him. Up and down those roads we trailed (I was all right physically otherwise): from the hospital where they couldn’t treat me without a shit, we were directed back and forth by people who gave us opposite directions, and finally found a Med Inspection Hut, where the Serg in Charge phoned the MO at the Officers Mess. He brightly told me I had ‘eaten something’ and that it would wear off in time, if I took a ‘light diet, just a little of everything’.
I nearly managed to laugh! Light diet in a place where we got corned beef and pickles, or soggy fried bread and beans!
Still, he gave me a powder which damned things up a bit, and I got by a bit better, though I was still weak about the tummy a week or so later.
We weren’t allowed out of camp the last three days, but Peter had his little car there and was boldly keeping it in a hanger, so we just took our water bottles down, filled the radiator, and then drove up to the gate, where the guard saluted us and opened same. It was amazing: and we came back when we wanted and worked the same stunt. That way I managed to get out and have some reasonably light food (and incidentally see ‘Convoy’ in Stockport, a picture which fanned my desire to be in the Fleet Air Arm).
They sorted us out on the fifth day (and took hours and hours to do it) and gave us code numbers to put on our kit bags. Mine was ‘C/Grant/Bean’ and Peter and Co were C/Tern/Bean and the bunch of Fleet Air Arm lads were Peter/Bean (These fleet air armers dressed in L/seamans uniform, looked very scruffy indeed, but later proved okay).
We then discovered that we were bound for Canada! And that we would maybe leave from Gourock. But they couldn’t tell us where we were going or how or anything.
Next morning everyone in the camp seemed to be paraded, in one long column with full equipment* and kitbags. It was 4 o’clock and the sky was clear and blackly crisp; a score or so were inside a hangar bellowing ‘Banks of Loch Lomond’, but the huge sounding box mellowed and enhanced their voices into a beautiful organ cadence which seemed to swell to the frosty bright stars beyond the empty heavens. It was a queer unforgettable incident that seemed symbolic somehow; beauty and the touch of eternity from ribald coarseness.
We staggered the station and piled aboard a long old fashioned but warm troop train, and that was the last of Wilmslow, for which we were truly thankful.
So that was the end of my elementary flying training. I went to Hatfield to a non-existent unit of the RAF. I’d shone at nothing (except the Link Exam at Cambridge). I had no set ideas as to what I wanted to do in this biz: nor did I know whether I would succeed in passing their exams or ever fly; though it had never really occurred to me that I might fail.
I came away the top flier + the top navigator of the course, with a set determination to fly fighters, the faster and furiouser the better.
(This determination gradually developed: I weighed up the gruelling requirements of bombing, the cold accuracy and precision required: and I also considered the hectic high speed reaction moved whirl of fighters: and the stories of nervous wrecks who were sticking in the fighters, mixing into the Hun circles, because they were scared to ask leaves, and the long odds. But I was faster than the average, and I’d had a good look at death, and it didn’t paralyse those necessary vital actions, so I felt it should be fighters, where I could really go all out)
But I don’t think I changed at all. I still felt pretty small fry. The train stopped only at Carlisle, where we could only buy tea, so we were in Scotland before it was really light. Then we followed the old familiar route up over Beattock, right to Cambuslang, then through a bypass line and down past the familiar sidings and works, to Paisley and then down the Clyde by Dumbarton rock and so to Gourock. It was wonderful but annoying to come right home, and then pass on. It was a fine morning and the tide was high and everything, the shining water, the green hills behind, the lochs with their snowy backdrops, the houses round the point at rhu, made me feel glad to be back. There were scores of ships inside the boom and we were sorted out on the pier and herded aboard without ever a chance to phone home. The old George V on which I’d been on dozens of hiking weekends from that very pier, was our tender and took us off to the Duchess of York, black rusty and forbidding. We stayed aboard that tender for nearly four hours waiting to get aboard and all was chaos, pushing and shoving. The officers were okay, but the rest were all herded together with a kitbag each. I slipped one of the hands half a crown to phone the folks that I had left ‘terra firma’ but had no surety that he did.
When we did go up the gang plank we were a conglomerated mixture of u/t pilots, mechs, fitters, GDs corporals etc and such was the chaos aboard that we followed our noses ‘ just for now’ and ended up in the fore hold! And there we stayed for the rest of the voyage, though there were a few cabins with GDs in them. We (John and I and Jimmy Arnold-Boakes) tried to buy them out even offering £5, each which shows how badly we wanted them (as much for the privacy as anything else). We also waited hours near the officers mess and saw a squadron leader, who however said he couldn’t do anything for us that trip. That was the beginning of fourteen of the worst sea days I could have imagined. The ship was in a chaotic state from stem to stern. We had to wait hours for our meals at first, and put up with all sorts of slack from an assistant mess room steward who was running it.
Then the crew, Liverpool rats, refused to sail, they’d been promised shore leave or something and got their union member up and had a lively barney about ships articles with the shipper, a most unimpressive man. Finally we went with a scratch crew of volunteers, and some navy men who were aboard on their way to Halifax. This left no extra hands for odd jobs, and we had to shift stores, stow thousands of hammocks etc and as GD corporals were in charge of this, they came specially looking for if/z pilots to put on fatigues, to satisfy their jealousy I suppose. No hammocks were issued; we just went along to where some Dockers were loading them aboard and grabbed what we wanted: no sailors in sight, no officers, no instructions, no supervision. Just chaos. I felt miserable: a tradition of mine was collapsing. I’d always solidly believed that aboard ship things were done in a sailor like manner, but here was the biggest mess and muddle I ever did see. Nobody aboard that great ship seemed to know anything, or do anything about the thousands of men aboard.
It turned out later that 1000 odd German prisoners were aboard, and all attention was turned to getting them safely battened down. That’s where the cabins went too, for half of them were officers, who had cabins, while we sweltered and stunk in the hold. After the Baltic trip on the Neuralia, a troopship wasn’t too difficult for me, and I felt quite comfy in a hammock. But some of the others had endless trouble and discomfort. Our ‘berth’ was in No 2 hold, one deck above the tank tops with 8ft of height and hammock hooks that packed us like sardines. Our only light came from two cargo lights, which hurt the eyes to read by. The first night, the hold was open and we all froze. Thereafter it was closed and the place stunk like a sewer despite the air vents which blew coldly on us. We were up by 6.30 break around 7 and rarely came back before lunch, in order to dodge fatigues and also mainly because the atmosphere made us sick. My stomach was still weak from Wilmslow, and after someone had been sick on the companion, I could hardly go down without holding my breath. The washing arrangements were terrible. Water was only on for two two-hour periods each day and was cold. Also, it had been taken aboard at Cape Town and was hardly fit to drink. We used to queue up eight deep for washbasins in the lavatories (for which there was no paper), which smelt worse than the sleeping deck.
The food wasn’t too bad at all, though contained a lot of dried fish, but you couldn’t buy anything from the canteen but poor chocolate and boiled sweets! We had chicken legs twice and eggs galore. And nothing to drink but some swill called ginger beer which was flat. The GDs and such used to drink the awful cheap beer in tins and mugs, and smoke a type of cigarette called “C to C” (from the Cape) which became so distasteful to everyone that boxes were thrown overboard, so the atmosphere by the canteen (where a score or more slept in the ‘Bull pen’ on the hatch covers) was also unique. Hence most of our time was spent on the cold promenade deck (January remember) all muffled up, like sheep in a corner, dodging the spray. And at first we weren’t allowed on the prom deck! For sergeants and WOs only! The sarges’ mess was quite comfortable and that and the class question would have made me determined to get a commission if only to avoid my repetition of this fiasco.
This ‘class question’ was really quite acute and caused us more discomfort than all else put together. We weren’t snobs, and we didn’t really mind sleeping in the hold and we could get by, feeding in that packed saloon; but we weren’t at any moment able to get away from their filthy talk or filthier language. They seemed to be the scrapings of the gutters of all Britain, and took a pride in their moral vileness: they were in fact the safest men in any service (exposed to nothing but bombing which everyone else exposed to now) yet continually talked of themselves as the ‘Air Force’ and described what they would do to Germany: they were as dirty in body as in mind too, and with no supervision on the voyage, wore no collars or even shirts sometimes and some didn’t wash. Not all the GDs or Mechs were so bad, but the general trend was of this sort unfortunately. Sadly enough, when some u/t pilots were detailed for mess duty, one or two took to serving in singlets and dishing out with their fingers. I was dreading the day I might be detailed as such, for I most certainly would have refused: being put on a charge of ‘disobey order’ though serious, would not have induced me to hand grub to those sods of GDs, and clean up their mess afterwards, not in a million years. Those who got the jobs and also jobs like dish washing and floor scrubbing seemed quite content with just grousing, but I don’t think I could have: so I was glad that my luck (well fostered) held until the trip ended.
In the early afternoon of Friday 10 Jan we followed the battleship ‘Ramillies’ and three Javelin class destroyers through the boom and down the firth. It was a wonderful clear and sunny winter morning, the hills were warm green round the unruffled lochs and Dumoon and the Clock were quiet personal friends; the green hills were white on top and the steep quaint climbing streets and roofs of Gourock were quainter under snow. Line ahead, we four steamed down past Arran whose peaks, gleaming golden white against the blue, shaded down onto the brown shoulders like feathers on a cockerels neck: close in West of Ailsa Craig (which raised great astonishment and guesses among the rubble) and on down to the foot of the Mull of Kintyre. Here we began to zig-zag, carefully in Ramillies wake, turned the point, passed Pathlin on our Port, passed Jura, then coasted 1 day. Then, when the sun was lighting with its last rays the white teeth that were the Paps of Jura, and Arran (still visible), we sighted a large convoy, of cargo ships mostly, out in the clear Atlantic. The destroyers carried on ahead; then suddenly the Ramillies flashed from the lamp ‘follow closely’ (we could all read Morse) and turned hard a starboard and headed back! Nobody ever found out why; we just steamed full speed (24 knots was Duchess’ best) back. It soon got quite dark, but not too dark to follow our course from stars and landmarks, which revealed we were retracing our steps and just before we turned in, Ailsa Craig loomed darkly by. Next morning we were anchored in a loch, which I didn’t know, with the sun shining brightly on the townlet on one side and a fine big house and estate on the other. From our subsequent passage up a strip of land locked water, we must have been in behind Arran. We were back behind the boom by lunchtime and fell into line with a big convoy which left in the wee sma’ hours. Passed Ailsa at dawn. We went down the firth again in a long spaced line, which turned hard a starboard off the Mull and streamed out into the Atlantic, giving us (the last ship but one) a fine chance to count them. There were 28. (Some line, with half a mile between each) and as we found out in the following days, they included: Highland Chieftan, Georgie, Empresses of Japan and Australia, Brittanic, Duchesses of Atholl, Richmond, and York (us), Stirling Castle and two other Union Castle motorships, also the Cameronia and Franconia (This lot and two sister motorships were with us until the Friday).
For escort we had the Ramillies (who was then on an endless N Atlantic patrol, alone, looking for the Deutschland) a County class Cruiser 10000 ton The emerald, a three funnelled Cruiser of distinctive layout, two other cruisers of modern design (one fitted as an AFI defence ship with high angle guns) and 8-10 destroyers, one a four funnel dazzle painted one, bought from the yanks.
It being Sunday, there was a service held (in the officers mess) and the only people who turned up were officers and u/t pilots, which was just fine. The mate and chief purser ran the service and there was an organ up in the balcony. This saloon was still in its old luxurious state, and we were glad to have a few minutes of clean thoughts and in clean surroundings.
Then back to the muck. In the afternoon we had an FFI of all persons aboard.
A column stretching right round the ship, along the alleyways past stokeholds on both sides, filed past an army doctor who glanced over us looking for outward signs of VD (and finding some), a process which took all afternoon, pushing and sweating around like sheep. Thereafter we huddled on the foredeck dodging work parties until well out of sight of land and watched the circles of the Strauraer and the Lerwick, which came out to see us off.
The next days saw us sunk into a dismal routine: boat drill with soggy cork jackets, then stay on deck till the ships inspections was over: then stay around the windy prom deck shivering until there was no more chance of fatigues. Then lunch, with no elbow-room, 18 at a table, then more work dodging and an interminable wait till tea, then, nothing to do or eat till bedtime, and so on. The worst part was having nothing to do. I read up some astral navigation, but had little enthusiasm about anything if in fact I felt sickish and headachy all the trip and mentally unhealthy as well. I had nothing against doing a bit of work, so got roped in to shift hammocks one afternoon. Along with about a dozen others, two puffed up little corporals, and the bosun, I went down where the German prisoners (in the corresponding deck to ours, only aft) were packed, in the sweaty half dark lying on blankets huddled together on the deck and hanging like bats in hammocks, and so down to the hammock store on the tank tops in no. 4. The bosun and I got on fine, and organised a chain and soon had most of a huge pile of hammocks stowed in the partitioned ‘store’. Then, after an hour, the bosun went off and a petty officer of some sort gaily began dropping dozens more from their position, jammed up under the hatch covers where they’d been dumped. This hero, dropped hammocks toilet paper bundles, sheets etc right down on top of us without often shouting and narrowly missed crushing one lad with a great bale of blankets dropped 25ft. I got pretty hot under the collar, after the way we’d worked to get the job done and went up the ladder and asked him when we were knocking off. He wanted to know who the hell I thought I was, and I returned the compliment. Whereupon he said if didn’t like it, I could see my commanding officer, but he’d been given us to get the whole dose shifted. (Two or three tons to go). Just then one of the little corporals (they didn’t do any heaving) popped up and said, “We’ll change this man”, and off I went grousing, leaving the petty officer bloke fuming away to himself. But the boys downstairs didn’t get changed or relieved for another hour. Which only showed the unfair mismanagement of the business. So I didn’t get in line for any more fatigues (I managed to swipe some clean sheets while down there).
The German prisoners were selling Iron crosses for 20/- 30/-, and stop wrist-watches (they were mostly pilots of the Luftwaffe) at £3 and also boots and all sorts; trying to get money to escape with I suppose. They were mostly big, decent looking chaps, a bit glum, or truculent, or impudent some of ‘em, but some I spoke to were really well spoken and intelligent and reasonable. The average age seemed about 27; their equipment wasn’t half so sound as ours, though much more gaudy. Most had been shot down in Britain, the remark being “too many Spitfires”. They expressed no particular opinion about the result of the war.
During these days there was some fancy cussing going on, against the RAF in general and the GDs and their corporals in particular. It was, I suppose, the only time they would ever be on parity with u/t pilots and they were making the most of it. We steered roughly South West (after the initial NW lays run) zigzagging in about 30 degree turns at 10-20 minute intervals, though that’s a very rough estimate. The weather became warmer; the winds less cold, and by Thursday had real hot sunshine and gulf weed floating past. Our speed was around 10-12 knots far as I could see, tho’ stewards swore to 17. That day I made an estimate of longitude by watching for the skipper come out for his noon sight and checking diff. Long with my watch (GMT) and then at night took a sight on Polaris with a protractor and some pieces of cardboard and a ruler. Then plotted our rough position on a mercator chart of the world, ‘ 7 ‘by ‘4’! This put us just NW of the Azores, and in the morning the convoy left us, heading for S Africa no doubt, and we carried on with Ramillies to show the way. Which shows how much we were kept in the dark regarding our position. Some thought we were there, others said off the short of Florida, Lord knows where else. My estimate of arrival was 12 hours out (we saw some Sunderlands on the trip so far and had an air raid warning about now, all below decks and flying bit kites on steel wires, which mostly fell in the sea)
The evenings in the dark, playing about with star sights, were the only times I had any privacy, any time to try to hold my being together, away from the unremitting press of the ‘rabble’ who seemed to assault your better feelings, to want to drag you down to the drab vulgar level, now that you couldn’t get away from them. That anyway was the horrid impression that grew on you. But out on the fo’cole head it was different. The sky was ablaze with stars, the wind was clear and cold and steady, the horizon a faint change in hue, and the black and ‘blacked out’ silhouette of the ship, bridge funnel and foremast, slowly traced sweeping easy arcs among the stars. We hurried smoothly along and the sea was ablaze with phosphorescence, burning stars and spangles in the shushing bow-wave, and in the wake. The first porpoise shook me quite a bit. He came streaking out of the dark to intercept the ship, his blunt nose rounded with light and heading a phosphorescent wake.
It looked just like a torpedo streaking in to catch us on the bow, but he just whisked round alongside and played under the bow leaving fading dragon trails behind him. Then down into the stuffy breathy depths, past the swillers listening to the American news by the ‘bull pen’ and so into the hold, (crouching under the hammocks of those who went to bed early, usually thro’ squeamishness) where half a dozen gambling schools were always in session.
Then life got really drear. Following in Ramillies wake, we ploughed into rough weather and by the second day it was blowing half a gale, and the seas were over twenty feet from trough to crest and we were almost broadside on to them, with just steerage way. The Ramillies was worse off than we by a long way. She seemed to be just the wrong length and buoyancy. The great seas, to which she didn’t rise, poured green along her foredeck and spouted in foam from the reversed fore turrets. Then she would rise to one, bury her stern, show her solid jutting ram of a forefoot the pivoting on her bulging midsection with its blisters, and bash down, tons of steel, spreading two huge rolling combers, and show the duck egg below water lines of her saucer-like stern. The gang aboard who weren’t too sick laughed cynically, and were really disappointed in ‘the British Navy’s first line ship’, which provoked much argument.
On Sunday the wind went down and the seas began to lessen and we speeded up until by nightfall we were going 15 knots again and there was a few stray gulls skimming the crests. We had another civilised interlude in ‘church’, and came up to find the decks swept with rain. We (the gang) spent the day arguing on ‘class distinction’ subjects, mainly education, John had been to Eton and I had the famous Scottish Education, and some others were pointedly advocating mass schooling (as per Manchester or the like, which were incidentally much smaller than the High) at 11.30 whilst the ‘Ram’, described a complete circle and then steamed on. In the evening there was a concert of sorts, in which some of our lads took part (Wally Hibbert as Hitler and then the Weston Brothers) but the atmosphere was so filthy with C to C’s that I stayed on deck.
The weather got worse again, and Tuesday produced the biggest seas yet: again we were almost hove to in half a gale from the west with the Ramillies under water and everyone was super stale and praying for the end of the trip. However, those odd seagulls were still skimming the waves, wind or no wind and next morning was a fine clear day, with bitterly cold west wind and sunshine and the sea went down. Then at 11am we sighted the ‘white cliffs’ of Halifax, after a false alarm which was agreed by most to be some skyscrapers, but was only a rusty tramp, seen abeam. The white cliff effect was due to the snowy hills and the darker woods on top.
Lochheed hudsons roared around as we steamed at 20 knots up the coast and into Halifax, and through the new boom, just like the clock on a small scale among all the glorious details of arrival. The high built gaudy little tugs, little puffing motor boats from along the coast, pilot boats, examination vessels, ferries, all threading their way thro’ a convoy forming on the harbour (carrying Douglas Boston’s on deck). A bunch of Stranraer Flying Boats taking off down an adjoining loch added to the general confusion.
It was great to be in Canada at last after that awful trip and the scenery was novel. All rocks sloping into the sea, clothed in scrubby pines, black against the snow on the ground and the blue empty sky behind the skyline looked like summer, though the wind froze our ears and we had to keep out of it. The German prisoners went ashore that afternoon; the officers well dressed in bright civvy overcoats with suitcases, mostly smiling. A movie man cranked his camera until a dock policeman chased him off and we saw the film on the news time and again later. We waited until next day and that night the ship was a blaze of light. It seemed strange, after the restrictions on even smoking, to walk along the prom deck in brilliant light: to see neon light and car headlights and windows in multi storage buildings forming patterns in the night. I stayed a long time watching the glimmering lights around the other shore of the bay and the Christmas tree lighted ferry boats moving in front of them.
After interminable waiting, in full kit, next day, we were submitted to the final disgrace of having to ‘clean the whole living quarters up’ due to a complaint by the army colonel running the ship’s load. So the corporals annoyed no doubt, hounded everyone, white peaks in particular to sweep and scrape and tidy: and most contingents had already gone ashore. We put in the time behind shut doors anyway, then at last they had to let us go, to catch the train and we trooped down the gang plank, the most thankful bunch of disembarkers there ever was, even tho’ it was 4pm and no dinner.
The wind had changed, and all was thawing and water poured and dripped through the board roof of the station and splashed on the plank walk that was the platform as we boarded the great clumsy looking steel riveted coaches, where we finally got settled down, 4 at a table space in the bare, hard seated double windowed atrocities. But we were fed: Oh boy! What feeding. The kitchen was on the train, and half a dozen went from each coach to bring back tin dishes, pails of coffee, bread and butter galore and steaks and chunks of beef, roast potatoes, soup cabbage and all the rest, far more than we’d ever seen before in the service, so that by the time we left the train (three days later) we had made up for the ships shortcomings and then some.
The double windows were forever frosting up and had to be scraped to remove half an inch of ice, but later we kept little spaces clear by using the anti dim wax from our gas masks. The scenery was worth seeing. First we ran past the landlocked bay behind Halifax, which was crammed with tramps of all kinds waiting to make up convoys, and by nightfall I had spotted the neon lighted hotel of Amherst flashing past. We’d stopped briefly at Truro, a small town, where we were able to stretch our legs and buy magazines, and were given boxes of apples by the enthusiastic populace. In the crush in the store on the station there was more than a little stealing going on, of books, souvenirs, flaglets etc which was pretty rotten, but didn’t surprise me: you couldn’t prove anything, but it was obvious. Then we stopped at night at Monkton and had 15 minutes too look at the town, gay with long missed lights and brilliant shops. Some didn’t heed the two wails of the engine and so missed the train, and thereafter we were penalised for their inconsideration and were exercised at stops. The second day we rolled and hooted (at a slower pace than home trains) through more tree-covered country, which had however less glens and ravines than had Nova Scotia (which was in spots reminiscent of a pine covered Rosshire, rushing rivers and all). The unusual features were the cleanliness that the snow left everything: the wooden dolls houses with shingle roofs and verandas: one with a red sign ‘MEASLES IN THIS HOUSE’ on the porch: the roads were mostly white packed snow and horse sleds with bells were common and some small sleds pulled by a single woolly ‘mixture’ dog. However, the vans we saw romped along at 30 or over on the packed snow without chains. Towards the St Lawrence river (we reached it near Montreal) the land became flat and almost treeless, marked off in sheep runs (the woollies were all inside large barns, as testified the muck heaps by the doors) with large 1000ft bogs back outcrops along the river covered by scrub and often topped with a great cross. The mountains across the flat white frozen river were beautifully etched in black by their forests, and looking close and small somehow in the crystal atmosphere, from the height where we stopped for water, and watched some kids skiing and sledging down to a river that ran below a terraced village of wood, and over everything shone the sun, lighting the snow to golden white contrast with the incredible blue sky, which shaded blue green at the horizon. In this area we skirted a number of towns which were built round really beautiful and grand cathedrals, with mounting spires and gilt domes and crosses, which seemed somehow unreal in this land of small and insignificant houses: an unreality accentuated by the picture book surroundings of sky, snow, sun and pine topped outcrop hills.
When we reached Montreal, (if 2nd) (we missed our reception, we learned) the train pulled into a siding somewhere back of the city and there we stretched our legs on the railway sleepers while city workers went through the middle of the train, which seemed to be across a right of way. When we climbed back, we were on the Canadian National Railway instead of the CPR as before and thence the conductors and trainmen were all French speaking individuals. While in the standing train, our GD companions leaned out of the windows and anyone who understood what was shouted to passing girls in Glasgow, Manchester, Cockney and other dialects, would have a shock at the filth and vulgarity of the gallant air force. Montreal with its French names and adverts looked pretty ordinary as a city, in fact, the part we saw was definitely poor and almost slummy, with the kids (7-9) playing ice hockey in back yards, where water had been sluiced and frozen.
We were fed up with the train now, the continual inactivity, the board hard seats: the stuffy heat of carriage (and wash place in particular with its proper towels): the trek to the kitchen for the tin tub full of plates etc, the stink of cheap cigars that most had blossomed out with, and worst of all, the nights. We slept either on the seats pulled out or the roof gadgets pulled down, and we had 3 blankets, but no mattresses or indeed anything to soften the bruising jolts of hip on wood: and the dynamo belt was iced and slipping or something, so the lighting was almost non existent. So bedtime was always a scramble for wash, a packed fight to arrange blankets, and an argument as to where to put all the kit displaced.
By the third day, Saturday, the scenery when we could get the frost off the window was of more or less prairie country, with the usual level crossings, horse sleights and miles of fences. On stopping we were ‘exercised’ twice a day, a most unpleasant business, where officers or NCOs took squads and marched them up past the windmill or something and then doubled them back. We usually sneaked off and yarned with the driver in the high cabs of his great course ‘cow-catchered engine’ and then had a walk on our own.
As the sun went down that night we were skirting the rocky north coast of Lake Superior. The coastline was very like the coast of the West Highlands, rugged, deep inlets (one very reminiscent of Diabeg) with little cabin groups, or sometimes a Heath Robinson factory of sorts on piles or stilts. It was very fine scenery the train winding out of tunnels, then along 20ft high above the water where the stony bottom could be seen through the still water, for the lake was strangely not frozen. The sea coast illusion was helped by the fact that no coastline could be seen on the other side, just open water beyond the crooked islands, with a cloud bank on the horizon. In the inky darkness we passed above what seemed to be a group of barrack huts, or an orderly factory and town, like a jewelled brooch in the distance.
4th day – Next morning we had left the scrub and trees and rocks and were rolling across flat prairie country wide and mostly unfenced, with occasional birch there or other non-evergreen woods, and at 9.30 arrived in Winnipeg and found a whole gang waiting for us. In the big marble hall of the station were a hundred-odd people (may be more) of all sorts. Give middle aged and old ladies, men (who’d turned out early on a good Sunday) of all sorts and we were supplied (or plied) with mags, apples and addresses by all and sundry. The braso band was there too and soon everybody was either dancing or yarning with somebody or other: except me as usual. I just hadn’t the knack of breezily breaking in on anybody and introducing myself. However there was no getting away from rounding matronly females for whom I must have had a ‘strange attraction’. Finally I collared an old scruffy looking rascal from Paisley Road ‘ near Lorne Street’ who had come straight from street cleaning out here to farm. John was busy with an equally disreputable old lad from ‘Naarfoch’. Our pompous little Squadron Leader with the fierce bushy moustache ordered us back on the train, and we saw the last of the Moose Jaw crowd, who waited to enjoy the reception, we hadn’t been there nearly long enough.
Two hours later, after lunch we came to a stop at a very small station in the flat flatness, and saw a group of boxlike hangars and huts 2 miles away. We were dumped out, had a last muddle about unloading kitbags: didn’t and climbed aboard open trucks. It was bitterly cold, despite the sunshine and we were given a blanket each for the short trip, which was a sheer necessity for the wind of our passage went for faces and ears like knives and made eyes stream so that we could hardly see the neat little town we left, nor the wire enclosed camp we were approaching.
Once there, we arranged ourselves in a wooden hall, were issued woolly long grey underpants and vests, leather mitts, ‘yukon’ uniform caps and snow boots. The u/t pilots were then, at long last sorted out, and we had a hut to ourselves. Next a hot meal, with lashing of butter, tea, sugar and jam, then into clean beds, after a hot shower, with clean sheets and pillow cases in a large airy barrack block well lighted and heated by three great space heaters which kept the place as warm as toast: and we had our kit bags now (lost during the voyage) so had clean pyjamas and towels! This was the first change anybody had now since leaving home, three and a half weeks ago!!! So all was cleanliness and comfort and we were pupil pilots again, at the end of our pilgrimage Carberry.
Then we learned a few things. Firstly, there were no aeroplanes. Second, during a talk by the CFI, a most reasonable man, we learned that this was purely a BOMBER school, with a bomber ground course too and when the planes did arrive they would be all Avro Ansons. Ye Gods! Ansons which we had been told were the safest planes in the sky: made of pipe and plywood! Obsolete and ante delurian. Dozens of them were in the course of construction or rather erection in the great flat topped wooden hangars. We were or at any rate I was heartbroken, for I’d set my heart and moulded my mind for spitfires and dogfights and here was my outlook, the visions I had constructed, smashed. I cried immediately to transfer to the Fleet Air Arm. It had sounded easy from the lads on the ship, but my plea was politely disregarded. And meanwhile the clear crystal blue sky was mockingly empty and all was quiet. It took a day or two to get used to the idea of being on multies for the duration, but I finally got down to the determination to fly whatever I came up against to the best of my ability, and try to make a success of it.
The living conditions weren’t too bad, we found. The food was good and there were bowls of butter and sugar and jam on the tables in the big cook house where all the airmen of the camp fed (a circumstance which produced a long queue each mealtime).
Carberry proved to be just one street, so far as we were concerned, containing a few ‘stores’ which supplied farms and housewives of the community, a drugstore, a hick hairdresser who trimmed in the window and four or more cafes dependent purely on the RAF, all alike in having bar, high stools and cubicles with tables. Only beer could be had in Carb. And that only at one ‘hotel’. (spirits need a licence and can then only be bought from the liquor control) so there was a wholesome sobriety about things. One went to ‘the village’ by taxi, 2 miles for 10c, for the snow was too deep for ‘dry’ walking, and one or two were bitten while trying. But a great attraction in the camp was the ice rink, an open air pond with wooden rail fence which was scraped and flooded now and again. On a borrowed pair of skates (we soon bought our own, but were dead broke on arrival) I put in a lot of spare time in the first few days romping around in the cold bright sunlight. While playing around with a hockey stick I got picked up as a possible by a chap who was forming a ‘hut’ hockey team, which tickled my vanity not a little (I’d never played any game in the RAF yet, and thought I’d make a go of this, since I skated quite well, by standards).
And it was while skating there that we saw the Harvards arrive. Out of the blue they came, literally and metaphorically, for no-one expected them and they were a fine sight; eight or nine roaring hornets, brilliant sunlit yellow against the dark blue cloudless bowl, lit up by the reflection from the snow their props shimmering silver, shooting up the drome with gusto, rolling diving and zooming. Any my spirits zoomed with them. Harvards, 250 mile an hour, two seat modern fighter trainers! Who were they for? Were they staying? Nobody knew, but I got new life out of the possibility.
We had not yet officially begun the course, so it was decided we should have some leave: but we had no money and English money would not pass even in banks we were told. So we were paid $19 and advised that Winnipeg was our best bet. It cost us $4 a head to get to Winnipeg by taxi, but it was no cheaper and much less convenient by train. So six of us hired a taxi, a Ford V8 driven by a large thug and off we went at 4 in the afternoon, I personally had little enthusiasm for the trip, the old plaguey distrust of making friends or ‘fitting in’ and didn’t see what would be found to do in a town (city they insisted). The Ford lapped up the miles over the main state highway (which passed thro’ Carberry, and had the snow plowed off) at speeds from 50-80mph and in fact covered the 112 miles in just 2 ½ hours running time. The country was flat and snow bound all the way with old patches of birch scrub and the road was as straight as an arrow with less than one turn per 5 miles. We stopped at Portage La Prairie as a halfway mark to shift around (we were 4 in the back seat) and have a snack then on in the growing darkness. Portage, which is just south of Lake Manitoba, was to us just one very wide street with cafes, shops and false fronts and dozens of parked cars.
When we arrived in Winnipeg it was dark and late, and we didn’t know just what to do next: finally decided to look up a lady whom Jimmy Boakes had been talking to at the Station Reception. After a search we found the address and were ushered into the basement apartment of a block of flats. (4 storey – 8 storey blocks, all known as apartments. Common front door and special bells and sometimes an elevator). Where the lady and her husband and daughter made us at home while she (the lady) got us organised: and all felt a bit nonplussed at the way we were taken charge of and made welcome.
The ‘Y’ where we’d intended staying was packed out, but that made no difference and after more phone calls, two cars arrived, we split in two parties and left these people, who were really sorry they hadn’t room for us.
We, John Birkbeck, ‘Jimmy’ Arnold-Boakes and myself, went with a Mrs MacPherson to her house four blocks away, where we were given a room to ourselves and literally the run of the house. Mrs MacPherson was a widow and had three children, Thora, a fearfully thin redhead and Don, whom we were introduced to, lived at home (in their twenties) and worked in Eaton’s store because their father had been a lifelong employee, and the younger boy, 19 or so was in the RCAF somewhere.
We were told to do just as we wished, not to let ourselves be taken around if we didn’t want it, and to come and go when we liked. We were even shown where to find the key to that 6-7 roomed wooden house, so that we could come in even if they were all out! That certainly spelt hospitality. They were ‘lower middle class people’ in cash value, but there were no classes really, except maybe the ‘upper ten’. The MacPherson’s worked hard at insignificant jobs, yet had a real home: clean, comfortable; a car, refrig, silk stockings and really fashionable clothes, so what more did they need? Thora bicycled in summer and skied in winter and had togs to suit (all Canadians are longer in becoming mentally muscle bound and grown up than at home) and don, who was a pleasant faced, almost plump lad, had ridden to Vancouver two or three times on freight car roofs, so they lived up to the general run of youthful unconventionality that springs from lots of civil and literal elbow room.
We ate at cafes mostly, though we were quite expected to stay in for meals, and we always stayed to breakfast, since we slept late all mornings, in spite of resolutions. I was a great pal of Mrs Macphersons, for she was very pro-Scottish (born in Edinburgh), but then we were all at home, and insisted on washing the breakfast dishes. It was fun to see old ‘John of Castleacre’ with a dishcloth in his hands.
We spent the time mainly in just wandering around, rather profitlessly just looking at shops etc and went to a couple of picture shows. The Hudson’s Bay Co had a huge block, the biggest building I think in Winnipeg, where they sell just everything and have ‘specially selected’ lift girls. They had a little museum of Indian and Eskimo stuff, which was most interesting too. At night the two main streets of Winnipeg, Main Street and Portage were ablaze with light of all colours, a great contrast to the inky blackness outside town. One evening (we stayed three days) don showed us around a bit. We visited a ‘beer parlour’ where dozens of Canuck soldiers and a lesser number of civvies were engaged in loudly vociferously and vulgarly getting drunk according to law. It was a most cheap and ill furnished place and the drinkers were of a pretty low order. Altogether a travesty of the ‘English pub’ and purely a drinking facility. The drink laws are designed seemingly to make the pursuit as degrading as possible, which may be a good system. We didn’t stay long, we also visited a bowling alley, where two or three storeys of the building were filled with polished wood alleys down which brightly clad assorted people bowled wooden balls at five nine-pins. When all were knocked down, at one ball, one scored a ‘strike’ and so many points and thereafter there was a complicated scoring system. The participants were a startling crew. Young children ‘high school’ kids, parents and grandparents, whole families were there: also the cigarette puffing and gum chewing sophisticates and their swains in fact everyone. All bowling and shouting and perspiring with their jackets off, and drinking soda pop in a blue smoke haze, with a background of wood snoring down wood, the high clink of scattered skittles, and the yells of the boys at the back who set them up again.