I was afraid to scare away Robert with all this research about his father. I am glad he is enjoying it. I think he is going to enjoy this post.
This would be similar to missions flown by R.C. Harris as a radar operator aboard a Havoc Turbinlite.
Very dangerous missions indeed.
The Turbinlite Havoc was a Douglas Boston with a large searchlight in the nose. This was powered by a heavy load of batteries carried in the bomb bay. Behind the batteries and cut off from the pilot was the rear cockpit where the RO, wearing a pilot type parachute, sat in an uncomfortable bucket seat surrounded by his AI equipment which consisted of several metal boxes and the CRTs. He also had the bottles for his oxygen supply, an altimeter and an ASI.
A night fighter worked with a GCI (Ground Controlled Interception) station which directed it close enough to a target for the RO to see it on AI. The nightfighter would move in unseen, get a visual on the target and, if it was an enemy aircraft, open fire. Operations with a Turbinlite Havoc were more complicated for the idea was that having found the target with the AI the searchlight would be used to illuminate it, at which juncture a Hurricane accompanying the Havoc would complete the attack. At night close and accurate formation flying was required otherwise the Hurricane could all too easily go astray. The only aids for the Hurricane pilot were dimly lit strips of white paint on our wings and, if in cloud, the navigation lights were put on. I never felt comfortable flying in daylight with a Hurricane’s wing tucked inside ours; at night, in cloud with the Hurricane following our sometimes quite violent manoeuvres I felt even less comfortable!
Hibaldstow was a satellite of Kirton Lindsey (correctly Kirton-in-Lindsey), the home of two Polish Spitfire squadrons. It was a grass airfield with no runways, but did have fine brick buildings. Hibaldstow had three runways, with an up-to-date lighting system, but everything else was makeshift. The facilities were so widely spread out that we had to go by truck to and from dispersal (the term for the area where the crew room and flight offices were sited and where the aircraft were dispersed on hard standings and alongside the perimeter track). The surrounding country was bleak, flat and soggy. To have an evening out entailed a three mile journey to Kirton Lindsey to go to a NAAFI dance or to the station cinema. As soon as I had bought a bicycle I went over quite frequently, sometimes giving Tony a lift on the crossbar. I also managed to get about a bit on the bicycle, on one occasion going to Hull and on another to Church Fenton, a nightfighter airfield in south Yorkshire.
We had to choose the callsign we would use to identify ourselves and the Hurricane pilot with us. Although I did not drink, I came up with “Whisky and Soda”. After a gentle indoctrination consisting of local flying, searchlight co-operation exercises, turning on our light and working with Patrington GCI, Whisky was ready to go to war.
Our first real operation was on 1 August 1942 when we carried out an uneventful patrol off the mouth of the Humber. We came into land, touched down and I knew immediately that something was wrong for the aircraft was bouncing all over the place. I was thrown about and stunned. When I became aware of my surroundings the aircraft was at rest. I could get no answer from Tony so opened my hatch to step out so I could go to see what had happened to him. But I did not realise that the tail was high in the air for the nose wheel had collapsed. I fell twelve feet onto the runway. Just before I passed out for the second time I saw that the Flight Commander was already on the scene and was getting Tony out. I came to in the ambulance and, still on the stretcher, was carried into the operating room in sick quarters. I was covered with blood but Tony was unharmed. The MO cleaned me up and having found only superficial injuries told us to go to the mess and talk about the incident to anyone who would listen. I have a small scar over my right eye as a memento of the event.
We had landed two fields short of the runway, crossed several ditches and fences, the main road and then gone through a barbed wire entanglement onto the runway. There was no explanation why Tony had so misjudged the touch down. It was just a mistake. He was sent off to do a few approaches by himself whilst I recovered, and that was the end of the matter.
Within a few days all was back to normal: carrying out an NFT then at dusk going to the crew room. If we were not training or making a routine flight we would be wearing flying gear whilst waiting for an order to scramble (one seldom came). We had supper between about 10 o’clock and midnight then, if not stood down, would sleep on bunks in the crew room. There was plenty of spare time to fill: we played ludo and shoveha’penny, talked and dozed.
On 1 September the flight became 538 Squadron, the CO still being Squadron Leader C V Winn (1). I myself had been remustered as a Navigator (Radio) in July as Observers were henceforward to be called Navigators. But turning us into a squadron changed nothing. We knew we were wasting our time for it had been clear for months that the Turbinlite idea was not a success. Certainly the GCI controllers had no faith in the Turbinlite for I have a log book entry for 15 December reading, “GCI – Huns about so kept out of way”!
The C in C Fighter Command, Air Marshal Sir Sholto Douglas visited our crew room one evening. The view firmly expressed to him by the CO was that we wanted guns. I cannot recall the exact answer but it was on the lines that we could not have them and should be happy with the equipment we had. This seemed odd at the time and in retrospect even odder for the conversion work would have been simple and the result a considerable augmentation of the already proven answer to the night bomber: an aircraft providing a stable gun platform and easy to fly at night, combined with AI and a heavy armament.
Tony and I had a near disaster over the Humber. We were climbing and had reached about 8,000 feet when the aircraft went into a shallow dive. Tony did not answer when I called him on the intercom and from the altimeter and the ASI I saw the dive was getting steeper and the speed building up. Tony was still not answering and I realised that the aircraft was going out of control. At 4,000 feet I called over the intercom to say I was balling out. I struggled from my seat and was about to disconnect my intercom and undo the hatch when I felt the aircraft levelling out. A very weak voice said, “Chalky, turn off your oxygen”. This did not make sense to me , but I did what Tony said. His voice got stronger but obviously something was wrong. We went straight back to Hibaldstow..
The next day the cause of the trouble was discovered. After the NFT Tony had left his helmet and oxygen mask under the windscreen. There was a slight leak in the screen’s de-icing system and de-icing fluid had dripped into the oxygen tube. The instructions about using oxygen were that at night we had to have it on from ground level. Tony had not done this: he had turned it on at 8,000 feet, got a blast of de-icing fluid and started to pass out. Before he went unconscious he realised that the oxygen was the cause of the trouble and had pulled off the Oxygen mask. He then started to recover and at that point warned me, forgetting I had my own oxygen system. Being Tony he managed to talk himself out of that spot of bother!
Perhaps the C in C did understand the situation for in January 1943 the squadron was disbanded, as were all the other Turbinlite units. Tony went as an Instructor at 12 SFTS (Service Flying Training School), Grantham; I was sent to Kirton Lindsey to await a posting. I spent my time with another sergeant running the Watch Office, but as the Spitfire squadrons looked after themselves the job involved nothing much more than answering the telephone and laying a flare path of paraffin flares each evening.
I had a lot of spare time so went regularly to the station gym to do PT. Once a week I took the bus to Scunthorpe, spending the evening in the dance hall at the municipal swimming baths. It was there that I came face to face with an air gunner from Elsham Wolds who looked so much like me that we could have been identical twins. I never saw him again.
I had a peaceful enough Job but could not avoid having a disaster. A tractor used for towing bits of the flare path was kept outside the Watch Office. It was driven by an LAC, who was the only person who knew how to lay the flare path. I had not the foggiest notion about how to drive but having watched the LAC it seemed quite simple. One quiet afternoon I got on the tractor, pulled the starter and promptly went backwards into a brick air raid shelter. The damage was tremendous. A brick wall 20 feet long and 8 feet high had fallen over leaving the shelter a ruin. When the LAC came on duty I asked what he thought should be done. He decided to hide the tractor for a few days, told me to say nothing about the incident and suggested I should keep my fingers crossed that the Station Commander did not spot that one of his fine brick buildings was a ruin. He never did, at least not before my posting came.
(1) C V Winn CBE DSO DFC retired from the RAF in 1975 as an Air Vice-Marshal and died on 20 September 1988.
I have a feeling this is R.C. Harris and his pilot when he was a radar operator with 535 Squadron.
Just a feeling…
Footnote to the footnote…
Did any reader notice that R.C. Harris has his googles upside down?