The following is from Harold’s obituary. I’m afraid it is the only information we have – except for extracts from his memoir that are provided below. It is a brilliant account from a point of view not often given.
On leaving school in 1936, Harold worked with his father to learn the butchery trade but in 1939, he decided he would like to join the Metropolitan Police.
As 6 months military training had become compulsory for all males at the age of 20, the police arranged for him to commence it early at 19. He had his call up papers for September 8th 1939, as we all know World War 2 started on September 3rd 1939, his 6 months became 6 years !
On completing his RAF training at Cranwell he was posted to the famous 601 squadron (County of London) known as the millionaire squadron as at least five of the pilots were well known millionaires. As a radio operator he applied for flying duties but unfortunately his eyesight was colour deficient. He therefore stayed with the squadron throughout his service, serving during the Battle of Britain, el Alamein in the Western desert, Malta, the invasion of Sicily and onwards through Italy. During this period his wife to be, Pat, commenced writing to him and on his demob in 1946, they started courting and were married in June 1950.
Unfortunately they didn’t have children but did have over 53 years of happiness until Pat died in November 2003.
On his demob, Harold joined London transport, the police career was over due to his eyesight (he was colour blind). He progressed through various grades and became assistant garage manager in 1971.
After their home was burgled, Pat and Harold decided to move to Norfolk, a county Harold loved after his RAF service at Matlaske and Coltishall. They were both fed up with living on the edge of Heathrow airport!
Harold obtained a position with Bland Payne in Norwich (now known as Marsh insurance brokers). Pat retired after 23 years as pa to the plant engineer of EMI Electronics.
They both enjoyed their sport, Pat ice-skating, cycling and tennis, Harold cycling, rugby during RAF service and golf. Neither had any regrets about their move to Norfolk and they spent many happy years enjoying the countryside and the company of good friends.
Harold’s Memoir Extract
The Memoirs of Harold Brown.
1939 – 1946 (+ 1954)
The War Years.
Early in 1939, I had had enough of shop work, seeing no future in it, so I decided to try to join the police. I duly applied, but was told that as military training had become compulsory so I would have to do that first. As the age for this was twenty and was for only a six month spell, I asked if I could do it early. The Police agreed to arrange for me to do this.
My calling up papers duly arrived for me to report to an infantry regiment on Sept 8th1939, which was in about three months time. In the meantime the political climate had changed, the previous year we had gone to Heston Airfield to see Neville Chamberlain return and hear him say “Peace in our time”, we had all believed him.
As we all know war was declared on Sept 3rd, I was not very happy about going into an infantry brigade in war time. Luck was on my side, I was told to report to the local Labour Exchange on I think, Sept 5th or 6th. There were quite a few of us there to hear those lovely words : “Your call up is cancelled, go home until further notice, we don’t want boys in this war” !
I pondered over the situation for a few days and decided that the Army was not for me in wartime. Without saying anything to anybody in case I made myself look a fool, I went to Uxbridge R.A.F. Station and volunteered. I had an immediate medical, it took about five minutes, was accepted, went home to wait for instructions re call up. I did not mention my previous calling up papers.
It was one of my best days work ever, the regiment I was due to join eventually went to the Far East, became Japanese prisoners and few survived. In one way I suppose I was a coward ?
In the meantime my cycling continued. One Thursday night we realised that we had forgotten to book accommodation for the weekend for a time trial starting at Pangbourne, the other side of Reading. As it was a very popular course we had stayed there many times and therefore knew the different addresses for “digs”. Unfortunately we did not have the luxury of phones in those days, but we did have a friend, a non cyclist, with a motor bike, he agreed to take me to Pangbourne there and then to book something for us, we could get there and back in about two hours.
Digs were booked, but on the way back we had an accident. Neither of us were badly hurt, I had a bad graze on my knee, a Doctor covered it with a gel and we returned home. The graze healed but left a funny scar, every time it was touched a blister would appear. Neither Mum nor I were happy with it, so she packed me off to see Dr Spiteri, he took one look and off I went to hospital. It did not take long before I was being seen by Dr Spiteri, another doctor and about 10 students. They explained that by a million to one chance, I had picked up a TB germ from the road, the gel had sealed it in and it had formed a “Kiloid” scar, an immediate operation was needed to prevent the germ getting into the bone and all over my body. Thank you Doctor Spiteri !
Of course I was worried in case my call up papers came while I was unfit; all was well as they came soon after I had the all clear. I had about a month to wait before reporting to Uxbridge; Uncle Fred suggested that I should work at Harrods as they needed temporary staff. I thoroughly enjoyed my few weeks there, I was put into the grocery section, I saw things that I never dreamed existed like Chinese Bird’s Nest Soup. It was an experience to watch Mr Cullum, the tea blender. He would make at least a dozen pots of tea, mixing tea from different chests, they had to stand for at least five minutes, then he would swill it round his mouth and then spit it out, all the time making notes.
RAF Training : Uxbridge, Blackpool & Cranwell .
I reported to RAF Uxbridge, another medical, swearing of the oath, receiving a shilling and, after being kitted out, off to Blackpool for basic foot training. I was only at Uxbridge for about three days. I was at Blackpool for about a month, we were billeted with civilian families, did the marching on the sea front, lectures in a hall. It was quite a nice time really.
Then came the nitty gritty; selection for various trades. I wanted aircrew, I felt that pilot training was a no go as I didn’t think my education was good enough, but thought I would make at least air gunner. I failed on all counts as I had a colour vision problem, this rather shattered me as I knew that I would never make the police if I survived the war. The best I could get was to train as a Radio Telephony Operator. Off I went to Cranwell in Lincolnshire for a two month training course. The job was to tune radios and the forerunner of Radar then known as I.F.F. (Identification, Friend or Foe) in aircraft. We were also expected to work in the Operations Room to relay messages from air to ground.
It was on this course that I first met Ron St. John, we became great friends. I think we hit it off well together as we were two opposites, he was good at talking, I was useful with manual things, so we helped each other. Later in life I became God-Father to his son Trevor.
Luckily we were both posted to the same squadron, the famous millionaire Auxiliary Squadron 601 County of London. Why “County” I don’t know, as far as I know there is no such thing as a County of London. There was great rivalry between 600 City of London and 601 County.
601 was formed in the early thirties purely to act in the defence of London.
When we joined it, it had five millionaires serving in it, all pilots. Neither Ron nor I were worried about promotion, all we wanted to do was do a decent job and hopefully the war would soon be over. As a result we stayed with the same squadron throughout the majority of our service. I think we were both lucky, if I had gone into aircrew, I doubt if I would be typing this !
Our postings to 601 coincided with the squadron being re-equipped with Hawker Hurricane aircraft, and also the squadron was being moved to Tangmere in Sussex. This news was made known world wide by Lord Haw Haw broadcasting it on German radio.
It was not long before the Battle of Britain was in full swing. The next few months became very hectic, at first the pilots were doing two days flying and one days rest, but when things really intensified the rest day was forgotten, they were even afraid to go to the loo in case they were scrambled, (get in the air immediately), before they had finished their business.
Our C.O. at the time was Max Aitken, the millionaire son of Lord Beaverbrook. About this time we heard that Roger Bushell, a former very popular Flight Commander on the squadron, had been shot down and taken prisoner. Of course this was almost daily news, but Roger was to become world famous as later he led the Great Escape, which was to end with his re-capture and execution along with many others. Steve McQueen played Roger’s role in the film The Great Escape.
Sir Archibald Hope, another millionaire took over as the C.O. One had to admire these so-called millionaire playboys. They could have still been in civvy street instead of fighting for their lives. There are many stories of this period already well documented, I will only mention one as it is, in my opinion, very special. Billy Fiske, a very rich young American, (and a gold medal Olympian) joined the squadron. He could have been living a life of luxury in America, but decided he had to do his bit in the fight for freedom. Sadly he did not last long. His aircraft was badly damaged in a dog-fight, he crash landed on returning to base and died from his injuries the following day, the first American to die in World War Two. I do not know why, but despite coming from a very rich family, his grave at Tangmere remained untended and became overgrown. Just recently the Old Comrades Association of the squadron did some fund raising and now the grave is a fitting memorial once again.
RAF Debden, Exeter & Northolt.
Late August 1940, the squadron moved to Debden for a so called quiet period, some hope as the Germans decided to switch their attacks from the airfields of southern Britain to attacks on London, this meant that the squadron was back in the thick of it again. We were only there a few weeks then we were on the move once again, this time to Exeter, this was only for a few weeks once again as Christmas was getting near, this time it was a move nearer home, Northolt. As most of us came from the London area, this was very welcome as it was very close to the tube and we could easily get home if only for a few hours.
There was not a lot of free time as the fire blitz on London was in full swing. As a result most of the flying done was night flying, we were all kept very busy. Whenever I could, I would pop home to see the family, if Ron and Vic were free we would go up the West End, despite the fire blitz, to see a show and have a meal. Quite often I would see Wally; he was on the heavy rescue brigade stationed at Kingston House, West Kensington. They were in the underground car park; it had been converted to house them with their own kitchen and sleeping arrangements as they were on duty for a 48hour stretch. As I was in uniform, a bed was always available for me; it was then quite easy to catch the tube direct back to Northolt in the morning. Although Wally was on duty 48hours, he did have free time during this; he would often take me to the Windmill Theatre, the one that never closed.
Of course it was not always a good time in London at this time, the city was really going through it, some of the sights were awful, and the worst ever was when the Cafe de Paris received a direct hit.
There were six RTO’s on the squadron, Ron St. John, Bert Gilding, Ken Price, Eric Fripp, Les Hopkins and myself. The sergeant wireless mechanic in charge of the section was named Nicholson, he was not popular as he was a line shooter (always boasting). He made headlines in the daily papers after the war, he was a schoolmaster and evidently went “over the top” by chaining some boys together because they would not behave !
Around January or February 1941, “Nic” went on a radar course at Cranwell. On his return he was telling everybody that he had seen a plane flying with no propellers. We all laughed and called him a B/F; we thought he was line shooting again. Later we all had to eat humble pie and apologize because he had actually seen the first jet aircraft.
As soon as the fire blitz on London subsided, we were moved to Manston in Kent, nobody looked forward to it as it was another hot bed of activity. From here the aircraft were doing a lot of damage to German shipping in the Channel, so German aircraft were constantly bombing us.
On my first trip into Ramsgate, I was in my element. We had almost forgotten what chocolate tasted like as it was very scarce in the London area. The shops in Ramsgate had loads; evidently they were allocated supplies according to their summer sales pre-war. Of course being a popular summer resort their sales were high, now they had no visitors. We bought as much as our money would allow. We were very popular lads when we managed a trip home.
It was at Manston that Ron and I cemented our friendship. Due to the constant air attacks, the aircraft were dispersed all over the place, this meant quite long walks to service them. We were paired up as it needed two people to change a set and to ground test them, Also the radio harness in the aircraft needed changing sometimes. The sets were heavy and took two to carry them.
I think as we were two opposites, I liked the manual side of things, Ron was a “talker”, if a harness needed changing, I would do it, if one was required in the op’s room for air to ground talking, Ron would do it. This worked for the two of us; later in life I found that Ron could not even change a car wheel, talking and manufacture of paper he was brilliant, he could not play cards because he could not remember the suites. He was a lovely man, life and soul of a party and a true friend; he was sadly missed when he died in 1975.
It was while we were at Manston that Germany invaded Russia, every body was pleased as we all thought that the war would soon be over. How wrong we were.
A new CO took over, S/Ldr Gracie, in appearance he was a typical English business man, he proved to as tough as old boots. After he had done his stint with us , he was posted to Malta and was reputed to have been the man who was instrumental in saving the island. Moral was evidently low, but he led by example with the result moral lifted and they were successful in resisting all attempts that the Germans made.
Around May we moved to Matlaske in Norfolk. Apart from the CO, S/Ldr Gracie, nearly all the pilots were new due to various reasons, tour finished, casualties, promotion etc. Matlaske was just a satellite airstrip in the grounds of Banningham Hall. The ops room was in the Hall itself, but all crew quarters etc were Nissen huts. For night flying we went to Coltishall.
Here at Matlaske I had another urge to try my luck at aircrew. Of course the result was the same. Being young and foolish, I had a chip on my shoulder as I thought I was being hard done by, but Ron soon made me see sense and we were back to normal.
Mum had been on to me about saving money, not that I had much to save, but I did open a savings account at the village post office, the account number was Matlaske 4, I presume it was only the fourth one to be opened there.
The nearest railway station to the airfield was Saxthorpe, this meant about a three mile walk unless you were lucky in getting a lift. My good friend now at golf is Eddie Rouse, a real old Norfolk lad, one of the nicest people you could wish to meet. He was a farmer living at Saxthorpe during the war and until recently. When he learned that I had done a lot of cycling before taking up golf, he alleges that I was the b—y airman who always “borrowed” his bike instead of walking. Evidently his bike was always going missing from his front garden and he would retrieve it from the airfield. I was not the guilty person, but who-ever it was, all is forgiven.
Matlaske is in the middle of the Norfolk countryside with very little public transport even to this day. Ron Broughton, a wireless mechanic (also a brilliant amateur watch repairer), acquired an old Morris Eight car. Our first outing to Cromer and Sheringham was in this. I do not know how many of us crammed into this poor little car; it must have been six or seven. No petrol coupons were available, so we “borrowed” 100 octane aircraft petrol which was freely available, I believe it did a lot of damage to the engine, but no one seemed to care. Goodness knows what trouble we would have been in if caught.
We all had a good time, I cannot recall anybody getting drunk, people liked a drink but never to excess. The day finished at a dance in Sheringham. Around mid-night, we all piled into the car to return to camp. The journey as far as Cromer/Holt road was good, a main road, unfortunately we did not know where to turn off as there were no signposts in those days. At Holt we realised we had gone too far, luckily, so we thought, we saw a chap walking, who we asked for directions. Typically Norfolk, he gave detailed instructions but forgot to mention “T” junctions. It is about six miles from Sheringham to Matlaske, it took us over four hours, no matter which way we went at a “T” junction, we arrived back in Holt. Eventually we saw the aircraft taking off on dawn patrol and finally made it back. We were a tired bunch on duty that day.
It was at Matlaske that we lost our beloved Hurricanes, they were replaced by the American built Bell P39 Airacobra, we were the only squadron to have them. The main differences were that the cannon fired through the nose of the aircraft and the engine was behind the pilot. They were not liked, many crashes took place, the squadron never went operational with them although they proved very successful in the Russian theatre of operations where they didn’t have to fly so high that their lack of a turbo supercharger was less of a problem.
Bell P39 Airacobras.
September time we moved to Duxford for yet more training and more crashes. The most spectacular one was when an exhibition was being given for some V.I.P.s, which included the Crazy Gang. A pilot was giving a demonstration of a low level attack. Sadly he went too low and hit the barrel of a Bofors ack ack gun. The pilot was killed; luckily none of the gunners came to any harm. This was really pilot error.
Squadron Leader E J Gracie at Duxford 1941
RAF Acaster Malbis.
At the end of October 1941 we had another move, this time to Acaster Malbis near York. We only had a few aircraft left by then as the majority had crashed and were not replaced. Acaster was a brand new airstrip; accommodation was in Nissen huts, which wasn’t too bad until it got really cold. The real problem was that there was no hot water, it was bad enough washing and shaving in cold water, nobody showered as the weather was turning very cold and we soon had snow.
The nearest village was Bishopthorpe were the Archbishop of York lives. We never met him, but the villagers were great, they welcomed us with open arms and open doors. Each family invited two of us to be guests in their homes. Ron and myself stayed with the Lockwood family, next door was a widow Mrs Stockdale, she was too frail to invite any of us, but would always play hostess if Mr and Mrs Lockwood were not available. They were lovely people, food and a hot bath was readily available. Village dances were held, everybody got to know each other, Ken Price even married a village girl.
Mr and Mrs Lockwood had a son Hamilton, unfortunately he was mentally retarded, I think these days it is called Downs Syndrome. He could not wash or dress himself or even clean his teeth, but he was well liked and a joy to know. Only two things interested him, football and buses. His bedroom was absolutely full of bus timetables and football books. Name a footballer and he could tell you who he played for, position, transfers and for how much. He knew every bus route which operated from York Bus Station, without hesitation he could give arrival and departure times. The Inspectors loved to have him around as he would answer the majority of public enquiries. He gained his knowledge by continuously riding new and existing routes. The Lockwoods were quite well off and could afford to finance his passions. Apart from football and buses Hamilton had no other interest in life.
Sadly Mrs Stockdale died, but throughout the war I kept in touch with the Lockwoods. When we were at Bishopthorpe, Mr Lockwood was the manager for the Co-op Bakery, but later he resigned as he bought his own business. By the time I came back to see them, over four years later, he owned several bakery businesses, I think it was eight in total.
On one visit to them shortly after Pat and I had become engaged, Mr and Mrs Lockwood asked if they could have a private chat with me. They asked me if I would be interested in working for them to learn the trade and if anything happened to Mr Lockwood I would inherit the business providing Pat and myself looked after Hamilton if Mrs Lockwood was unable to do so. Naturally I spoke to Pat about it as it was a very generous offer. With regret we turned it down. It would not have been fair to lumber Pat with such a huge responsibility, also I had already tried bake house work and did not like it. Another factor was that by now Hamilton was a fully grown young man.
Within two years Mr Lockwood had died, followed soon after by Mrs Lockwood. Nobody ever told me what happened to the business or who looked after Hamilton.
Getting near Xmas we only had one serviceable Airacobra. A new pilot had joined us, only 19 years of age; his home was near mine so we often had a chat. He took this plane up for a test flight, we must have been the only two around as many pilots and ground crews were on courses about the new Spitfires we were expecting. I watched him do various manoeuvres followed by looping the loop. At the top of the loop the engine cut out, I heard him revving to try to get the engine going, but to no avail, the plane fell like a falling leaf, just spiralling until it crashed into a frozen pond. The young pilot had been unable to bale out as the engine was behind the cockpit, the plane was upside down with the wings on each side of the cockpit preventing the pilot from ejecting. I had to attend the inquest; strangely the cause of death was drowning.
At Acaster an amazing coincidence happened. As we were doing very little flying, a Beaufighter regularly did practice low level attacks over the airfield. Our local shop at Cranford was called the “Handyshop”, it was run by Mrs Giles and her son Rueben who was about my age. We were not actually mates, but did know each other quite well, he was always known as Sonny. Sonny was in the Territorial Army and was called up at the outbreak of war; consequently we had not met for about two years. I was on leave and ran into him at Hounslow West underground station. To my amazement he was an RAF officer sporting pilot wings, he had swapped services by volunteering for aircrew duties. Over a long chat with a cup of tea, it transpired that he was the pilot of the Beaufighter doing the practice low level attacks at Acaster. Sadly we never met again, I went overseas, he survived the actual war, but was killed during the Berlin airlift.
Soon after Xmas we were equipped with that beautiful aircraft the Spitfire and we moved to Digby in Lincolnshire for training. A new CO also took over, S/Ldr John Bisdee DSO, DFC. As soon as basic training had finished he had us on parade to inform us that he had volunteered the Squadron to go overseas. It appeared that as the squadron was an Auxillary unit and had been formed for the defence of London, (hence its title County of London), technically it had to be volunteered. Most of us were happy and thrilled at the prospect of going overseas as I don’t think any of us had ever been abroad, it was a big adventure. None realised the dangers we were to face, most came back, but sadly a lot did not. Some of the original auxiliaries tried to wriggle out of it, but war took preference.
By Sea to North Africa.
Early March it was off to Liverpool to board RMS Rangitata, that is, just the ground staff. We did not know at the time, but the pilots were off to Portsmouth to board HMS Wasp and become the first to fly Spitfires off an aircraft carrier and go to the defence of Malta. How they did this I do not know, as to my knowledge they had no training as to taking off an aircraft carrier. The ground crews would make the long sea journey ending up in Egypt, then into the desert and the pilots would then fly from Malta to join up again as a squadron. Of course none of us knew this until it all happened.
I don’t think any of us realised how dangerous it was in a convoy crossing the Atlantic to America, down the coast of America then across the Atlantic again to Freetown in West Africa. After a few days in Freetown we were on our way round the Cape to Durban. By now we had been at sea for over six weeks. It was going round the Cape that we had a big scare as by now we realised that we were in shark infested waters. I had just got comfortable on the toilet when there was a huge explosion; I have never finished the call of nature so quickly to get back up on deck. The ship next to us had been torpedoed. As we were a troopship we had to continue, the escort vessels stopped for survivors.
Life on board this troopship had good points and bad ones, on the whole it was very boring, plenty of lectures, loads of safety drill a lot of spare time. I do not think any of us realised the dangers, luckily we all got on very well. Quarters were very cramped; each deck had its own galley for cooking, eating and recreation, a pleasure cruise it was not. To sleep we had hammocks which were hung over the top of the dining tables. As it was so crowded it was very hot and smelly at night, when the weather was warm enough, a lot of us elected to sleep on deck. This was not very comfortable as no mattresses were provided, just a hard wooden floor, a bathing ring would have been handy, we rolled a towel into a roll, then into a ring to keep our hips off the hard deck. It was a lot better than sleeping in a hot smelly hammock below decks.
A lot of card playing took place and board games; I do not think there was much gambling. One of the best and enjoyable pastimes was to arise early and go to the ships galley where they would supply us with a big mug of tea and a few biscuits for one penny, this was glorious especially when we were in the tropics with a lovely sunrise and watch the flying fish. As fresh water was non existent all washing was with salt water, special soap had to be used – not very nice, in the morning’s one usually had to queue for the toilets. I think that we were all very happy when after six weeks at sea we docked and disembarked at Durban.
Our home for the next three weeks was to be Clairwood Camp. This was a beautiful place, a famous horse racing venue which had been transformed into a transit camp. The offices, cookhouse etc were in the buildings, but those in transit were in Bell tents, eight to a tent, they were quite large, a comfortable bed and plenty of space. The food was out of this world after what we had been having, fresh fruit, bacon and eggs, all kinds of drink, and the weather was glorious sunshine from dawn till dusk. We all felt as if we were on holiday, very few had ever been outside England before. Although we had to attend lectures and certain drills, we had plenty of free time.
Durban itself we loved, I think most of us were a bit shocked at the way the coloureds were treated, they could only use certain toilets, they had to give way to whites on the pavement and they had a whole load of restrictions, everyone seemed happy so we soon accepted that way of life.
The beach was fantastic, but I don’t think that I would have done so much swimming if I knew then what I know now about the great white sharks. No light restrictions at night, nice restaurants, who wanted to leave to fight a war ?
The time seemed to fly and we were told that we were going on the “Mauritania” cruise ship, no destination was mentioned, but it was common knowledge that it was Egypt. Nobody was happy when we were told that we would have no escort, this ship was said to be so fast that it could outrun any submarine. Although this was supposed to be one of the finest ships afloat, we did not like it as much as the old “Rangitata”. After an incident free six days, we arrived at Port Said. The only thing outside normal routine was that a crew member died because it was so hot and his body would not sweat. We all attended the funeral, this was going through the Red Sea, no-one had ever attended a sea funeral before, very, very moving.
After disembarking and running the gauntlet avoiding shoe shine boys and sellers of dirty pictures, it was on a train. At first we suffered, the temperature was 106 degrees, it was to Heliopolis, or it might have been Helwan, I am not sure, again this was another transit camp, but this time it was more like a prison. The first thing we had to do was to strip naked and go through de-lousing procedure, it appeared that the “Mauritania” had been in service so long that it was full of bugs, luckily we all seemed free of any.
It seemed that life was all lectures and medicals, but we did have some spare time. The nearest town was Ismalia, we soon learned a bit of Arabic, ”Impshe” Yallah”(P—- O—), ” Anna muskeen, fellish fulla” I am very poor and have no money. I do not know if the spelling is correct, but it was the only way to deal with the beggars, shoe shine boys and hawkers. The shoe shine boys were the worst never took “No” for an answer and would deliberately dab your shoes or even stockings with polish. Egg and chips seemed the most popular meal in the NAAFI, I don’t know what the eggs were, but they were very small and you had at least four on your plate.
From the camp to Ismalia we went by train. On arrival there were no platforms, being new boys we just piled out of the train by the nearest door on our first trip, whether we had been told or not during one of the many lectures, I do not know, but some of us got out on the wrong side, this was “Out of bounds area”. In no time at all, Dusty Miller and myself found ourselves in a Police van. We spent the night in a cell, and returned to camp the following morning and told that charges would follow. On subsequent trips we were very careful. We never did hear anymore about the charges, a few days later we went into the desert to Mersa Matruh to meet the aircraft from Malta. Within a week Dusty had been killed.
Life in the Desert.
Mersa Matruh was the beginning of our life in the Western Desert. As soon as all the aircraft had landed and had been serviced, the pilots and ground crews got together for a drink and a chat about their experiences since we had left Blighty. There was good news and of course bad news. The good news was that the experiment of flying the aircraft off the aircraft carrier had been a great success and during the spell on Malta they had shot down a confirmed 26 enemy aircraft. The bad news was that we had lost three pilots, the ratio was good, but any loss is a bad loss. One of the three lost was an Australian named Briggs, his pal and soul mate was Scot. Briggsy and Scotty were two of the first Australians to come over to join in the war, they were a great couple, it was Scotty who took me on my first flight, I did several test flights with him on various aircraft. Scotty was so upset at losing Briggsy that he was no longer considered fit for flying and was sent back to Australia, we heard no more from him. As a result of this we really lost four pilots.
Briggs it appeared, had been shot down by our own ack ack, sadly it was his own fault, no blame on the gunners. The rules of engagement clearly stated that if an enemy aircraft went into our anti aircraft box barrage, on no account should our pilots follow. Unfortunately Briggsy was so intent on shooting down an ME, that he either forgot or ignored the rule and it cost him his life.
Rommel : A Close Encounter.
We soon adapted to desert life, the big difference was the lack of water. The landing strip we were on was on the Alexandria side of Mersa. One afternoon the squadron had been stood down, that is the aircraft were not required for flying, this gave everybody, especially the pilots, the chance of a good rest. As we were alongside the beach, most of us went swimming, suddenly a shout went up and horror of horrors we could see, albeit a long way away, tanks coming across the desert heading for us, instead of the expected battle for Mersa Matruh, Rommel had by-passed it. Without stopping to dress, the first priority was to get the aircraft off the ground. As soon as this was done, it was done in minutes, we simply chucked anything important into the trucks and went down the road as fast as possible towards Alex. The bivouacs and non essential stuff was left including the cookhouse, food and water. There was only one tarmac road, in the desert itself it was just tracks, although it was a two way traffic road, there was nothing coming towards Mersa, but it was mighty busy going towards Alex, speed limits were ignored !
About twelve hours later we were regrouped, that is the ground staff, where the pilots and aircraft were we did not know, but presumed that they were safe. We had no food or water as the cookhouse had been left behind for the Germans to enjoy. The main problem was water, in the last 24 hours we had only had a cup of distilled water each, it was not very nice.
It was not long before communications were established, we received orders to proceed to Lake Mariut, this was a Landing strip, airfields in the desert were simply known as L. G’s with a number, I think Lake Mariut was LG154, they were so numerous that one cannot remember them. We were soon re-united with the pilots and planes and once again operational after being issued with new kit.
Living in the desert was quite primitive. Bivouacs were sleeping quarters, just a couple of blankets, ops room was a trailer as was the cookhouse. Each person had their own plate and enamel mug. If water was available you collected your own in a bowl for a wash and shave, more often than not we went days without washing or shaving, it was paradise if we were close enough to the sea for a swim.
There was never any shortage of petrol so this was used for cleaning ones clothing which really only consisted of shorts, pants and a shirt. I suppose one could say that it was all dry cleaning; some people had a skin problem caused by this. There was no alternative unless we were near the sea, then it was a problem getting salt water soap. Nobody ever seemed to suffer permanent damage though.
Who said the desert was dry !
After a while bivouacs were replaced by tents, six to a tent, they were a blessing. Where we got stuff from I don’t know, but soon everybody had a bed. Two poles and a sheet of canvas supported off the ground by empty ammo boxes, a pillow was rolled up clothing. It was surprising the amount of comfort which was obtained.
Each person was issued with 50 “Victory V” cigarettes whenever possible, also a little chocolate. As I was the only non-smoker, all the cigarettes were given to me in our section to allocate a ration on a daily basis, otherwise they would all have been smoked immediately, I swapped my ration for chocolate. I was told that these cigarettes were absolutely awful. Although I didn’t have the facilities to keep these cigarettes under lock and key, none were ever stolen.
During the next few months we were continually moving from one LG to another around Alexandria and Cairo as the fighting was at a stalemate at El Alamein. We did manage to see quite a lot of these cities. Naturally we enjoyed the sightseeing and also the visits to the various NAAFI’s and the Fleet Club where we could get a nice hot bath. Sometimes we were even able to stay overnight, the hotels were clean and very cheap, they had to be otherwise we could not have afforded them.
There were brothels in both Cairo and Alexandria at first, but they were closed eventually, they were official and covered by medical staff. I believe they were well frequented. Although by now I was 21years of age, I really had had no experience with the female sex. If it had not been for Ron St John, I would have probably followed the crowd, but Ron would have none of it, he was two years older than me and much more worldly wise. We would usually go swimming or to a show instead. I will always be grateful to him for this.
Spitfire “flypast” !
During this period things were fairly quiet, what flying took place was only routine patrols or air tests. I think it was the middle of September or later when we were all paraded to attend a special briefing. To our surprise it was given by General, later Field Marshall, Montgomery, he told us the general picture of what was going to happen in the near future. In the past, the war in the desert had been a series of advancing and then being driven back due to supplies not being able to keep abreast of the advance. Monty said ”This is not doing to happen again, I will not move until I am sure that we have at least four of everything that Rommel has, then I will know that I have plenty of backup”.
As we all know now the move came on October 23rd when the battle of El Alamein started. For ten days there was not a quiet moment, the shelling was terrifying. At this time I think the squadron was on LG142, about 5miles behind the front line. One will appreciate that in those days air to ground communication was pretty primitive compared with that of today. Flying over the desert was not easy to find ones position as there were few land marks to identify. Normally a pilot would only get lost if he had been in a dogfight and lost contact with the rest of the squadron. To counteract this, the Wing which consisted of four squadrons, had three Direction Finding vehicles. these vehicles would form a triangle about five miles apart, they had radio sets tuned to the aircraft and by turning the aerial to get the maximum sound, taking the compass reading and then comparing the three readings it indicated the exact position of the aircraft. the pilot could then be given the information to get him back to base I don’t think any of us liked being detailed for this job as the van was pretty isolated. During the whole of the battle I was doing this job, luckily near the station at El Alamein, but a bit too close to the front line. When the break through started we re-joined the squadron for the advance.
El Alamein 1942
The night of November 5th, Guy Fawkes, the mopping up was in full progress, no firework display will ever match it, the sky was a mass of different coloured lights. When we advanced the following morning and saw the carnage it brought tears to your eyes, burnt out tanks, dead bodies of all nationalities, some blown up by exposure to the sun like Michelin men. Not only did we feel sorry for them, but also for the poor souls who would have to move them. Nobody should ever have to suffer like this. There was no counselling in those days.
On the advance it was back to normal duties, never staying at one LG for very long, the advance was so quick Xmas was soon upon us, our first in the desert. We were at a very familiar named place, Marble Arch. In the middle of the desert was this huge monument, what the history of it was I never did find out, not even in the year 2004 when I returned to Egypt.
“Marble Arch” in Libya.
“Normal” Life Resumes.
Our Wing was 244 Wing consisting of 601, 92, 145 squadrons RAF and 239 South African, some times we shared an LG, other times we were on our own. It was always nice when we were near the sea as we could at least keep clean with a swim, irrespective of the fresh water position. If we were well into the desert the water problem was always difficult, some times we went days without a wash or shave and only a mug of tea morning and night. In those cases water was strictly for cookhouse use only. On one occasion we found a well and thought we were in paradise for two days until somebody found that it contained the dead body of a German, we preferred the water shortage than to use that well.
Each section had its own tea to brew when water was available, we never had any problem in getting hold of tea milk, (tinned of course), and sugar. The motor transport section had to make regular trips to a maintenance unit for supplies, Monty was true to his word, there was always plenty, the main problems were water and special parts for the aircraft, on many occasions Peter Hepple the Engineering Officer, had to scrounge certain parts from crashed aircraft rather than wait for them through official channels. All the food was tinned or dried rice, corned beef, meat and veg, bacon, margarine mainly with hard tack biscuits. The cooks were really good the different ways they thought of dishing up the same old things, I cannot remember ever having fresh veg or a drink of nice cold water in the desert.
If we required tea, milk and sugar for our brew ups we had to buy it. It was always in bulk, half a sack of sugar, huge bag of tea and a case of tinned milk, naturally it lasted a long time. Later we captured a Stuka Dive Bomber intact; it was made airworthy and repainted in our colours and markings (click here for photo). When things were a bit quiet and the CO was in a good mood, he would give permission for a couple of the pilots to fly it back to Cairo or Alex. Of course they enjoyed a few hours there and would load the plane with luxury goods, beer, whisky, tinned fruit etc. Sadly these trips were few and far between.
To make our brew ups, usually morning and afternoons, it always depended on the water position, we endeavoured to keep a Jerri can full of water for the purpose. The teapot was a margarine tin cut in half with wire attached for a handle. A hole would be made in the ground and petrol poured into the sand and lit, when boiling the tea would be added followed a few minutes later by the milk, each person added their own sugar. Very primitive it may have been but what a lovely cup of “Char” !
It was common practice for Bedouin tribesmen to visit us in the desert. They would barter fresh eggs for tea, I do not know how they managed to get the eggs or how they managed to carry them without breaking, they just produce them from out of their clothing like magic. They were always lovely fresh eggs, much better than the powdered stuff. Some people tried to swindle them by offering used dry tea leaves, but they were too smart. It was a pity some our chaps did this as they were delightful people
Of course one got really fed up with the same food week in, week out, any variation was a treat, under the conditions one could not just pop into town for some fish and chips. On one occasion we did have an ENSA show, but I cannot remember where we were.
It was a glorious sight and feeling when we entered Tripoli, lush green vegetation, people walking about on pavements and traffic on the roads, shops with fresh fruit and vegetables for sale. We soon settled in at Tripoli Airport, proper buildings for a change. The highlight of our stay there was that we had a visit by Winston Churchill, it was great to see the great man in person, sadly the next time I was to see him was when he was Lying in State.
Winston Churchill at Tripoli 1943.
Whilst in the desert ground crew personnel did not change a great deal, the only time new members appeared was after we had had some casualties. With aircrew it was different; they changed a lot for various reasons. Losses which were thankfully were fairly low considering the amount of operations flown and finishing their tour of duty and being due a rest period, were the main reasons, also of course promotion.
At one LG the planes were off on an operation when we were attacked by some ME109’s, the ack ack gunners were soon in action and all but one disappeared, he went up as if to loop the loop. At the top of the loop, his engine cut and he started falling like a leaf, just like the Airacobra at Acaster. This time though the engine was in front of the pilot. Like fools we stood watching as if it was an air display, waiting for the crash. At about five hundred feet, the engine roared into life and he dived towards us with machine guns blazing. As he pulled out of the dive, the ack ack boys got him and he went into the desert with a huge explosion about a mile away. Luckily our casualties were light, only one dead, unfortunately my good friend Tony Hall, quite a few others had minor injuries.
A lot of flying was taking place, sometimes the planes came back together, sometimes in dribs and drabs, if it was the latter, we knew they had been in a scrap, on occasions some didn’t return at all.
W/O H Holden showing damage to his Spitfire.
Once, one landed well after the others, followed by another they had been given up as casualties, the first was an awful landing, we thought the pilot must be injured, as we ran to him we nearly had a fit, a single-seater Spitfire but two pilots got out.
An amazing story, P/O Llewellyn had been shot down and did a belly landing near the Qattara Depression, this is a huge area of very soft sand, like quicksand, and it is impossible to traverse it. At the time the front line was about level with this area and the sea. P/O Kelly saw him and decided he would land in the hope of helping; fortunately he landed on the hard stuff. Llewellyn ran like an Olympic sprinter to him, jumped in on his lap and somehow they managed to take off. Whilst this was going on P/O Rowlandson circled overhead keeping an open eye for enemy aircraft.
In 1957, the Air Ministry received a letter from an Italian who had witnessed this entire incident. Although he was a gunner, he was so surprised at seeing the rescuing pilot throwing out two cushions and a yellow pillow that he could not fire. The cushions and pillow were actually Kelly’s parachute and May West, to make room in the cockpit for Llewellyn. This was the first time that two people had flown in a Spitfire, the experience proved invaluable later.
A Guest of Rommel !
A few days later P/O Llewellyn was in trouble again, he took off in company with P/O Ibbotson on a routine patrol, they were attacked by some ME 109’s, they both suffered damage, Llewellyn managed to get back to our side of the front line and crash landed near the coast road. He was picked up by a British armoured vehicle and brought to safety. Ibbotson’s glycol tank had been damaged which would cause the engine to seize up, he had just time to search for a proper landing area, he made it to LG 8 which he had been told on briefing was in our hands, so he landed safely. To his horror the troops which greeted him were Rommel’s Africa Korp. As his engine had by now seized up, he was helpless. As the front line in the desert changed so quickly, the Germans had only retaken the area about an hour previously. F/LT Carew-Gibbs the Intelligence Officer who had given the briefing information for this flight, was always known after this, in fun, as Duff Gen Gibbs.
P/O Ibbotson was escorted to a well equipped caravan and to his surprise was introduced to Field Marshall Rommel (The Desert Fox) himself. Although flattered by the treatment given, “Ibbo” didn’t relish ending up as a POW. After a chat and a drink, he was put into a tent to await transport to take him back behind the lines. When darkness fell, he managed to get out of the tent without being seen, after running several hundred yards; he found cover in some very deep tank tracks. Although there was a lot of movement going on, he was not discovered, eventually with the help of some Bedouin tribesmen, he returned safely back to camp a few days later.
I think that it was about this time that we heard that our troops had landed in Algeria.
The advance continued buoyed with the knowledge that our task was that much easier because our forces were also advancing from the other direction, it would mean that the war in North Africa would soon be over. We were at Enfidaville, a hilly area known as The Medinine Hills, Hazbub was the airfield, it was known as The Mareth Line. As Rommel was almost beaten and the RAF were doing so much damage to him, we suffered continuous air attacks, but one lunch time, or “Tiffen “as we called it, we were really shaken and literally shell shocked. The meal was the usual rice with tinned meat and veg, Ken Price had just got his plateful when the first shell exploded. Instinctively he put the enamel plate over his head for protection; it broke the tension as other shells screamed over by the laughs created at the sight of his meal running down his face.
Shellfire is by far the most terrifying thing that I have ever experienced. Of course the first priority was to get the aircraft to safety. Some took off with two pilots in them after the Kelly/Llewellyn episode at the Qattara Depression. The Ghurkhas, we were told, were sent into the hills to flush the guns out.
This was about the last of the action in North Africa and we were able to relax, go swimming, a good rest and visits to Tunis and Algiers.
It’s ancient history, so we’re told,
That airmen, though so brave and bold,
Who spend their time, the foe in quelling,
Have never suffered any shelling.
To you a tale I now will tell
of a certain wing that suffered shell.
This, and more I shall relate
of “erks”, and their grisly fate.
One day in March, upon the scene,
There loomed the hills of Medenine.
Through the early morning haze,
Their rugged grandeur drew our gaze.
With voices sounding bright and merry
we asked a “squaddie”, ”where is Jerry ?”.
He looked at us and did not speak,
but pointed to a distant peak.
The words that followed brought us fear,
For we knew then that we were too near.
“He’s in those hills, and there he’s stuck,
Believe me chum, it’s ——– your luck.
The days passed by with action full,
Until one day there comes a lull,
Then like a bolt out of the blue,
A Jerry shell from muzzle flew.
At first we thought some silly loafer
had left a round up in a ”Bofor”.
And so we did not dash for cover
until the ——- sent another.
“Erks” across the deck then sprinted,
What they said could not be printed.
Oh what a fearful dash we made,
Talk about “The Light Brigade”.
“Get the kites off” was the cry,
but most of us were pretty fly.
Where are the N.C.O’s we said,
but they might just as well be dead.
Up into the air at random
went the kites-the pilots in tandem.
The riggers, down on bended knee
said “can’t you spare a place for me ?”
Back into our holes we run
funny feeling in the “tum”,
mumbling with indignity
“Shelling’s not the thing for me”.
So passed the day, on came the night,
We dared not even show a light.
The 210’s fired, their muzzles hot,
And “Hazbub” got the ruddy lot.
Comes the cry for which we pray
“Load the lorries right away,
We’re pulling out to safer parts”,
Bags of joy in all our hearts.
But the order, counter-minded,
Back at ”Hazbub” we have landed.
Down our holes again we tumble,
Guns again commence to rumble.
But at last our Army No 8,
Sealed the blasted Germans fate.
They from “Mareth” did retreat,
And so the campaign is complete
244 Wing then said ”You’ve done your bit”,
I’m sure there’s no denying it.
So back to “Ben Gardane” at last we reach,
To spend our lives upon the beach.
When this is done we’re on our way
To take part in another fray,
And to the new erk’s we’ll be telling
Of Medenine and all the shelling.
And so our life in the desert was almost over, we didn’t know what was in store for us. The amazing thing was that of course we all had our little moans and groans, we all yearned for a nice evening out, a lovely plate of fish and chips and naturally the pleasure of sleeping in a decent bed, but nobody ever complained of the life we were living. Up to now it had been over 12 months since any of us had had any leave, not even a day off, it would have been of no use. The main pleasures were receiving mail, writing letters, a swim if possible and the rare occasion of some luxury from the NAAFI. Card playing being the main pastime, no gambling, mostly Bridge. One thing we did do, very cruel really, was to get a scorpion and a tarantula spider, make a ring in the sand, put them in it and watch them fight, the scorpion usually won.
We never went short of food, but it was nearly all tinned and very little variation, lack of water was the main problem.
Tea Up !
Mail was fantastic, hardly a week went by without any, how it found us I do not know, much better than the present day. I think it must have been this that kept us in such good spirits.
One would think that we all had a nice nest egg, but our pay was only about 21 shillings a week, it did not take long to spend it when we were able to get a few luxury items from the NAAFI.
After a short stay at Ben Gardane, we were en-route to Malta. Malta was still very much under siege and still having a rough time of it. In the toilet of the ship which was taking us to the island, somebody had written on the door “Air raids are not too bad until you are the actual target”. I realised that during the London blitz and all subsequent bombing, I had not been all that scared, it was random bombing, not me in particular that they were after, but when the bombers dive bombed us on this ship, it was a different matter, they were after us, it did then become very scary. Fortunately they were not too accurate and we arrived in Malta safely.
The Malta experience was good and bad. The bad was the continual bombing. We were at Luqa airfield and as fast as the craters were filled in so more bombs came and made more craters, fortunately the casualties were quite low which was a good thing.
On the good side was that we were able to go into town and enjoy some night life. After nearly two years in the desert this was a luxury, we were only used to a game of cards, a read or to write a letter. The main area for entertainment was a street, more like an alleyway really, called “The Gut”, why I do not know. It was full of drinking bars with music and dancing. Food was very scarce, on a rare occasion one could get egg and chips at seven shillings and sixpence, more than two days pay, no one bothered much, but now and again they really did go down well.
Ron and Vic had written to me, they didn’t know that I was on Malta of course, our exact location was not known at home. All they knew was that we were now Central Mediterranean Forces, not Middle East. They told me that Roger Poole, a great cycling friend, had been badly injured and had died on the island of Gozo. How they knew this I do not know, can only assume that next of kin are informed. I subsequently went to Gozo, it was not easy as transport was difficult, to try to find his grave and take a picture, information was hard to get and I was unsuccessful. As he was in the navy it could have been a sea burial.
Eventually the bombing got less and less, we soon knew the reason as we were briefed about the invasion of Sicily and Italy. This was to be the invasion of Europe, nine months before what is now known as “D-Day”. I was to be in the advance party of the squadron. This was made up of a small number from each section or trade, just sufficient to be able to be able to service the aircraft for a short period of time until the main party could link up.
We were told that we would be going in with the second or third wave of landings, the first priority being to establish a suitable landing strip. Naturally we were all very apprehensive; none of us had experienced anything like this before. We boarded an L.C.I. (Landing Craft Infantry) just after midnight in Valetta Harbour, this would enable us to land soon after dawn. There were about ten of us RAF, the rest were the PBI (Poor Bloody Infantry !). Halfway across everything was deathly quiet, just the steady drone of the engines and the lapping of the waves, everybody engrossed with their own thoughts. Suddenly Tommy Abey, one of our engine fitters, broke the silence. Tommy stuttered a bit, “I feel like a bride on her wedding night” he said. One of the squaddies, who was just as nervous as we were, asked him what on earth he was talking about. ”Well” said Tommy, ”I know there is something coming, I know that I am going to get it, but goodness knows what it is going to be like” !
We landed and sadly Bert Reynolds and Gus Wakeham were killed, the rest of us soon found the airstrip and made sure it was fit for use. The first plane to arrive was the CO. The perimeter of the landing area had a low stone wall similar to those in Yorkshire, they were only about two foot high, nobody dreamed that they would be any problem, unfortunately the CO came in much too low and his wheels just caught the top of the wall and cart wheeled him over. The Spitfire broke in half and the engine trapped his legs. As he hung upside down in the cockpit, the whole lot went up in flames; we could do nothing to help, a sad start to the invasion for us. Other pilots made sure that they didn’t do the same.
After about ten days, the rest of the squadron having joined us, we moved to Catania airfield. This was big enough for the whole Wing, one squadron on each corner of the runway.
This was the first really green vegetation we had seen in many months. The little we had seen was during the short time we had been in Tripoli, before that it was nearly two years before in South Africa. The Nile Delta is very fertile, but not what I would call a green belt area !
The first thing we did once settled, was to set up a Mess Committee, I was made Chairman. With four others we had a lorry to go round to local farms to buy fresh produce. The rate of exchange was 400 lira to the pound; British Military currency was used, not Italian. We bought turkeys and a pig live, also plenty of potatoes and other vegetables. We all looked forward to some good food, but hadn’t thought about preparing it. Les Hopkins was a redhead; he and Eric Fripp were not the best of pals. One of the turkeys was simply huge, Frippy named it “Golden B——–s”, asked why and the answer was “I want the pleasure of wringing the b——s neck”. When the time came Frippy stepped forward with a beaming smile to do the job. The poor bird collapsed, with a smirk Frippy wiped his hands, being he had finished doing so, the bird stood up and shook itself as if nothing had happened. I had to step in and do the deadly deed properly, Frippy had only half strangled it.
None of this extra catering was official; the cookhouse had nothing to do with it.
When it came to the pig’s turn we had a real problem, we were not allowed to shoot it. This may all sound cruel; I would not kill for killing sake, but will to put food on the table. The turkey had been nice, but after the food we had had over the last year or so, the thought of a lovely piece of roast pork and crackling was mouth watering.
We discussed the matter and decided that it would have to be the Kosher method, stun it and slit the throat. This sounds and is, in my opinion, an awful method, but needs be and it had to be done, there was no alternative. Needless to say, nobody wanted to do the job, as Chairman it fell to me ! The job was done and I don’t think the animal suffered too much stress. We had a forty gallon drum which petrol came in, the end was cut off, it was then filled with water and boiled. The carcass was fully immersed in the boiling water then scrubbed and jointed. The drum was then laid on its side over a hole which we had dug in the side of a ditch. The cut off top was attached to make a door and a primitive shelf put inside. Our old friends the margarine tins were our roasting tins; we scrounged some margarine from the cookhouse for the basting fat. Apart from salt, that was it.
The heating system was “Heath Robinson” ! Long pieces of copper tubing, from crashed German aircraft, were made into coils leaving a long straight bit at each end of the coil. One end was flattened and fixed under the oven; the other end was attached to a petrol supply a safe distance away. The flow was regulated so that it was a steady drip which was ignited, this gave a steady heat and cooking was successful.
The meal was simply roast pork and roasted potatoes washed down with plenty of white wine. It was absolutely delicious. The turkeys had been cooked in the same manner, both were nice, but the pork was just about the favourite.
Oranges and sugar were in plentiful supply, oranges from local farms, half a sack only cost a few pence, sugar we could still get from the NAAFI. None of us had a clue, but we thought we would have a go at making orange squash. We simply thought that it was only a matter of squeezing the juice out and adding sugar. Obviously we soon found out otherwise, so after several efforts we were content with just fresh orange juice.
I cannot remember exactly how long we were in Sicily, but it was long enough for the whole squadron to go in groups for a few days to stay at a villa high on the slopes of Mount Etna. The villa was really beautiful, it had a lovely veranda all round the building where one could sit and admire the view from any direction. The walls had very nice murals painted on them. The squadron provided us with provisions, but we had to do our own cooking etc, this was no problem. It was a lazy few days, eating, sleeping or a gentle stroll up to the summit where you could look down into the crater. It was lovely relaxing for a few days and eating lots of fresh fruit.
Sicilian “holiday” villa !
It was soon back to the grindstone. There was plenty of air activity going on as the Germans were pulling out of Sicily, the Wing was doing them a lot of damage. One night we had just got our heads down when we were attacked. We were close to Mount Etna, on three sides we were surrounded by hills, the other side was the sea. The first thing we noticed was that each hill had lights shining; all the bombers had to do was bomb between the lights. Unfortunately for us the first bomb dropped hit a petrol bowser which was full of petrol. This went up in a ball of flame, the whole area looked as if it was daytime. The ground consisted of old lava, hard as rock so we had been unable to dig slit trenches as was the custom. The only shelter was a ditch which ran parallel with the runway. Most of us ran for this, goodness knows what the casualty list would have been if a bomb had landed in the ditch. I would certainly not be typing this !
Ron and some others took off towards some woods across the field adjoining the airstrip, as it was like daylight; one of the bombers obviously saw them running and dropped a stick of bombs. They were lucky as the ground was so hard it caused the blast to go in one way which was away from them. Casualties were very light. At first we thought we had lost a number of colleagues, Ron included, as they were missing for nearly 24 hours. They were in the woods suffering from cordite fumes, Ron was quite poorly as he always suffered from his “Tubes” as he called his lungs. Deep craters and piles of lava were everywhere. Looking for survivors we heard noises coming from one pile, digging away we found “Smudger” Smith, he was unhurt apart from a few scratches. Lucky for him the lava was porous, just allowing him sufficient air to breathe
When we’d got our heads down, we had fifteen serviceable aircraft; the other three squadrons reported the same. After the raid not one aircraft was fit to fly. This obviously left the Germans an easy exit from Sicily.
The fitters and riggers were struggling to repair what aircraft they could whilst waiting for replacement aircraft to be flown in to replace those beyond repair. Whilst this was going on the Adjutant rounded up six of the biggest chaps, of which I was one. We were each issued a revolver and away we went on a truck. We went to all the farms on the surrounding hills from which the lights had shone, the head from each farm was made to get on the truck. When we had six we went to some woods and made them dig a big pit. Each thought it was to be their grave. They were lined up and in fluent Italian told that if it ever happened again, they and others would be rounded up and shot. They were then taken back to their farms. Whether this was too severe or not, I don’t know, but to my knowledge there was no repeat. Our casualties were two killed and several injured, light compared with the damage, but still too many.
The invasion of Italy took place soon after this episode however we didn’t move into Italy until an established footing had been obtained. When the advance party did go, we went by air. We took off in some old DC 3’s from Catania. We rounded Mt Etna to get height, then up the coast with Etna on our left. We then all thought that our time was up as the plane simply fell as if crashing. The pilot said that the drop was about a thousand feet. It was very frightening to us, but the aircraft’s crew were not too concerned as they said it often happened as there were unusual air currents between Etna and the sea, they did admit that it was one of the worst !
Our destination was Forli and so began my love of Italy. It was nice with towns and shops to visit even though there was little to buy. We liked having a drink with the locals and to try to converse with them. Most of us soon picked up a bit of the language, those that didn’t, like Ron, used sign language. There was not much air activity, so we did have some spare time; we spent this visiting such places such as Bari, a lovely place.
The Sporting Life.
The Wing was soon settled into a routine. There was not a lot of aerial activity so feelers were put out about forming a football and a rugby team. Neither was my sport to take part in, but I did enjoy watching football and took an interest in the sport. As a result I was made Secretary, I didn’t intend to play, but on the odd occasion I was roped in to make the numbers up. As I found that I could kick with both feet, it was usually the left back position that I was put in. I had no part in the picking of the team; this was done by our PT Sergeant Trevor Smith who played for Fulham and England. If only the present day pros were like him the sport would still be a beautiful game. He was a true sportsman, we were losing in one match and we were awarded an unjust penalty with which we could have got a draw. There were no arguments, Trevor simply took the kick and deliberately shot wide, he believed we should win on merit.
Forli football team.
The rugby boys were soon at it, but were struggling for players. A pilot Tom Ross was the driving force; he was a New Zealand “All Black”. I was on quite friendly terms with him as we often spoke about their tour of Europe which he was on for which Rina was the interpreter. He cornered me one day and said that I was the right build for a prop forward. Although I liked watching rugby as well as any sport, I did not have a clue on rules or tactics. He was soon giving me lessons in company with Jack Dunne, a Devon County player, who was the other prop.
I thoroughly loved playing and really enjoyed the matches. I must have done well as later I was picked to play for the Wing against a team from the Eighth Army at Cesena Stadium.
Forli rugby team.
Tom Ross and my self parted company after the war had ended and the squadron was disbanded around July 1945. He went back to New Zealand while I went back to Egypt. The next time we met was in 1990 at The Battle of Britain re-union dinner in London. Tom was about six foot three with jet black hair in Italy. In London he was exactly the same except that his hair was pure white.
According to Air Ministry records Tom flew the very last operational flight in a Spitfire in World War 2 in Europe. On his trip to London, he went to the Air Ministry to get a copy of his log book to have proof of this.
With the better weather the advance began in earnest, we were on the move in support. Next came the Anzio Beachhead landings. The landings were successful despite heavy casualties, but the American General in charge made a monumental mistake in not pushing for Rome. This was a bad mistake as it allowed the Germans to reinforce the beachhead which ultimately led to a prolonged stalemate. This is the Official opinion, not my personal as I am not in a position to know.
As our aircraft were covering the landings, we listened in the control room to the pilots. This was done in case we could be of any help if necessary, we did not operate DF wagons now. Suddenly we heard F/O Bulmer “I have a f —–g ME109 on my tail”. A few seconds later ”Now there are five or six of the b——–s and that he was separated from the rest of the squadron”. No more was heard and he did not return.
Four days later F/O Bulmer returned, walking into our quarters with his arm in a sling, he filed his report and was taken off the missing list. The throttle on a Spitfire is on the left hand side, the pilot’s body is protected by a sheet of armour plating. It appeared that an ME had fired a burst of cannon fire from behind. The armour plating saved him but one shell had gone to the side of the plating, under his arm which was extended with his hand on the throttle and boost control, but had taken part of his hand and the throttle controls causing him to crash land into the sea – luckily near a hospital ship. They picked him up, apart from his hand, uninjured and looked after him for a day or so then sent him back to his unit. Everybody was pleased to see him back and he was soon en-route to the UK.
In late May or it could have been early June the news was terrific, Rome was in our hands. We were soon on our way there, just outside the city, it was not long before we had our first views of the Eternal City. We were very lucky as some of us were allowed a few days to spend in the city at a so called “rest camp”. This was our first leave of absence for over 18 months. The accommodation was very basic; I think the area was a horse racing course or something similar. Camp beds in a big hall, a NAAFI for food, no privacy but we were free for a few days. We had no choice as to who we went with, but nobody worried too much as most got on well together. Jack Dunne, Les Valentine and myself had a lovely time, it was made even better with the news whilst we were there, that “D-Day” had taken place.
Rina and Bunny were very high in the Catholic Church, they had asked me that if ever I got to Rome, would I light some candles for them and make a donation in St Peter’s. This I was able to do, I was very lucky as I went on a Thursday and that was the day that the Pope gave an Audience to English speaking troops in the Papal Chamber of the Vatican.
It was a wonderful experience even though I am not Catholic. Pope Pious was carried in on the Papal Chair by Swiss Guards. As he was being carried through the Chamber to the Throne he leaned over and placed his hand on various heads and simply said “I Bless You”. I was one of the lucky ones, perhaps that is why 62 years later that I am still going strong !
When he reached the base of the throne, the Pope, who looked very old and frail, just jumped off the chair and ran up the steps like a youngster. At this point I was very naughty, I had a little vest pocket Kodak camera, the light was poor, I rested it on somebody’s shoulder and took a photo. It is not a good photo, but it is not too bad, I still treasure it.
Pope Pious on Papal Throne, Vatican City 1944.
Our next move was to Perugia, the airstrip was close to Lake Trasemena which had a nice beach and good swimming. It was usual for young Italian girls to visit our quarters to collect our laundry ”Lavorno”. We were hesitant at first but nothing ever went missing and we always got the right things back. They didn’t charge much, they were pleased to earn a little and we thought it was luxury to have our clothes washed and ironed properly.
Naturally friendships were formed, it was not long before we were meeting them on the beach, swimming and trying to speak a bit of Italian. Jack Dunne, Ron and I were invited by some to go to their home for a meal with their parents. We had found along the beach an empty Chateau, there were large vats of wine in the grounds. Being perfect gentlemen we decided to help ourselves and to take some with us for the meal. To us it tasted good, none of us were experts as to wine tasting, I think our first experience of wine drinking was in Sicily. According to our hosts, the wine was new season; our Italian was not good enough to find out the story about the Chateau.
Food was very scarce for civilians, so we appreciated the fact that they were willing to share with us what little they had. The hospitality was great the food was very simple, fried rabbit with spaghetti covered with parmesan cheese. At the time I did not like cheese very much, especially parmesan, now I love it. The only way I could eat the meal was to wash it down with the wine, not being used to wine or any alcohol, I had to be very conservative with the amount I drank. It didn’t help matters when having finished the plateful, more was put on it. Needless to say I must have been very merry by the end of the evening.
Our stay at Perugia was longer than usual. It may have been because the weather was not as good as it should have been or because not a lot of headway was being made due to the terrain being very hilly. We didn’t mind as there was so much to do and see, we felt very privileged to go down deep into the tomb of St Francis the Patron Saint of All Animals in Assisi.
It was while we were at Perugia that we received the terrible news of the Great Escape of RAF Officers which resulted in so many of them being executed, among them their leader, our own Roger Bushnell.
Of course the war was still going on; the aircraft were mostly doing strafing runs as very little was seen of German aircraft. The news that Italy had finished hostilities was very welcome, it made us very happy.
Caserta, Naples & Pompeii.
As the push continued north we moved also, one of the best places was Caserta, near Naples. This was a lovely spot, convenient for visiting Naples and we had access to Caserta Palace which had its own Opera House. This was my introduction to opera; I enjoyed it very much and afterwards visited as many opera houses as possible. Caserta was only a very small opera house, seating about fifty; it was also used for films. We had never had it so good.
My first outing to Naples was a disaster; we had a lorry to take us into the city. Anything we didn’t want to carry around we put into a storage compartment on the lorry. Why we took stuff with us I do not know, but I left my holdall containing chocolate, writing material and a sheepskin jacket which had cost me a bomb. On our return the compartment was open and empty. A lesson well earned.
We all saw and experienced some awful things during the war; the worst for me was when Ron St John, Les Valentine and myself were visiting the NAAFI in Naples which was always the first port of call on a day off. This was normally a top class restaurant; we would have a good meal and hopefully buy some chocolate and cigarettes for the smokers. It always had an orchestra playing. Having finished the meal, we were preparing to leave when Military Police came in and ordered us to go to the reception and wait. Of course we were worried as to what we could have possibly done. In a very short while the reception was crowded, all different ranks from all the Services and both sexes. We were told that we were going to witness something very important, that was all.
We were soon loaded onto lorries and on our way, we knew not where, but it was a decent distance. When we stopped there was a lot of activity, lots of people around, service personnel and civilians. We were told that we were at the Ardeatine Caves, the smell was awful.
A terrible massacre had taken place here about six months previously, it had only just been discovered and we were to be the Official witnesses.
Over three hundred and sixty Italians from all walks of life, including clergy, had been brought here and executed for helping the Allied Forces to escape. They had simply been mown down by machine guns and instead of being buried; the Germans had dynamited the caves to cover the bodies. There were lots of relatives trying to identify semi decomposed bodies to put them in coffins for a proper burial with a photo attached as was their custom. The smell was dreadful, but I think the sight of the grieving relatives was even worse.
The German Officer responsible was eventually brought to trial in the late nineties, because of the time lapse he only got a prison sentence. As far as I know none of us so called Official Witnesses were ever contacted as regards the trial.
Counselling was unheard of in those days, naturally many were very upset at what we had seen, especially the service women. Our reward for witnessing this terrible scene was some light refreshments and a guided tour of Pompeii.
Pompeii is an amazing place, the local population seemed to be living in poverty and yet the church was really luxurious. We were all moved by the ruins and realised what an awful experience it must have been. One building caused some, including me, to be very embarrassed. In company with young service women we were shown the brothel. A stone bed which we were told was covered with straw, the walls were tiled, each tile showing a different sexual position, fifty seven in all. I have often wondered if that was where Heinz got their fifty seven varieties from !
The guide who took us round told us that although it is commonly thought that Vesuvius was the volcano responsible, it was actually another volcano, which was adjacent to Vesuvius but is no longer in existence, which was actually responsible. From that day to this, I have never heard this mentioned.
It was whilst we were at Caserta that Vesuvius erupted. It was about nine miles away and we were covered with very fine ash, not very pleasant, but for the poor souls living closer it must have been far worse. Compared with the Pompeii eruption it was only a minor affair. At night I think it was one of the most amazing sights I have ever seen, the glow of the molten lava made it look like a mountain of gold. No movement of the lava could be seen, but we were told that it was actually flowing at a speed of two or three miles an hour down the mountain side and the people living there had to hurry to get out of their homes.
Mount Vesuvius erupting 1944.
It was standard practice that if an aircraft had not been warmed up and needed to be airborne quickly, somebody would sit on the tail and the pilot would give the engine maximum revs before attempting to take off. On at least two occasions in Italy, the pilots were so anxious to take off that they forgot the poor so and so on the tail and actually took off with him still on the tail. When leaning across the tail, the force of the air current created by the engine made it virtually impossible to get off until the engine was closed down. Of course when airborne, the pilot soon realised what had happened because of controlling the aircraft. The only answer was to land as soon as possible. This was very difficult because the pilot could not use the flaps correctly to balance the aircraft and when landing, the tail of the plane would hit the ground first. Once the rigger managed to hang on despite the bump and got away with it, on the other occasion the bump was too heavy and dislodged the poor chap and he was killed. I don’t know what action was taken against the pilots, if any, really it was pure negligence.
We were close to Mount Cassino when the battle for this was taking place. There was plenty of air activity going on as well as the awful fighting on the ground. When the paratroopers made their drop, one poor devil caught his parachute on the tail of the plane he had jumped from. We only had a short time seeing this, but it seemed like hours watching him trying to release himself. I don’t know the result but fear the worst.
When Cassino eventually fell, we went through it the day after; I have never seen such devastation.
Move after move followed northwards resulting in visits to places such as Florence and Pisa and then it was across to the Adriatic side for a lengthy spell at Fano, near Rimini.
The airstrip at Fano was almost on the beach, the road running parallel with the runway. On the other side of the road was the village where we were quartered. We felt terrible about our accommodation because the residents had to move out of their homes and live in their garages to allow us to move in. Strangely there was no ill feeling, they seemed to be pleased to do it and did not mind a bit. They helped us a lot and we did what we could for them, we all became good friends. One week Ron, Eric Fripp, Bill Yellowlees and myself (we all shared the same room) were quarantined in the room. Bill had been diagnosed with meningitis. All we could do was to sit around reading for a whole week, it was horrible. Our food was handed to us through the window, fortunately neither Ron, Eric or myself went down with it.
Many of the locals were inshore fishermen; their main catch was a small fish, larger than whitebait but smaller than a sardine or Grandad’s sprats. We often bought a load and cooked them on an enamel plate over a petrol fire on the beach. Margarine was scrounged from the cookhouse and with a chunk of bread they went down well. Afterwards it would be a swim in the darkness, my first experience of “skinny dipping”, it was lovely.
Many years later, the local doctor got in touch with me via our OCA, he was writing a book about what it was like for civilians living in wartime conditions. He considered that the present and future generations should know what it was like in the early forties, he wanted to borrow photos and hear any memoirs. I did what I could to help and he sent me a copy of the book, but being all in Italian and with my knowledge of the language being very poor after so many years, I did not really benefit.
From Fano, although we did not know it at the time, we moved to our final destination in Italy, Treviso just outside Venice. The end of the war was near and we were to spend many months at this delightful spot.
Treviso was a lovely, smallish town at the time. It must be quite large now though as they have a rugby team in the top flight of European rugby. It has a proper airfield so we had good accommodation. Venice was only about ten miles away so we often went there sightseeing and to the Opera.
Venice Lido Casino – Opera House – I think not !
Ron and I both had developed a liking for the “vino” but I could not touch him for the quantity consumed. In Treviso we always went to the same wine bar. The owner had two young ladies serving who we thought at first were his daughters, it turned out that he was their “Padrone” (Legal Guardian). He must have liked Ron and myself as we were invited home for a meal and to meet mother. Naturally we both liked this as we were getting on well with Livia and Laura, we often went for walks with them and to look at the shops not that there was much to buy.
The war in Italy actually finished on May 2nd 1945 even though May 8th is “VE Day”, I still have a copy of the communiqué stating this. Flying still continued but only doing patrols.
On May 8th Ron and myself went into Venice, the finish of the war in Europe had not been announced at that time. We were in St Marks Square when it was announced officially and that it was “VE Day”.
St Mark’s Square, 8th May, 1945
The celebrations started immediately; all day and all night dancing, singing, drinking Chianti, eating hardtack biscuits and hard boiled eggs, the only food available. I don’t remember how or what time we got back to the airfield, it was just as well that there was no flying as we were simply not fit for work. Late afternoon we went into Treviso for more celebrations. The Padrone had closed the bar for business only family and friends were invited to stay, we were amongst them.
He had saved a special bottle of rum throughout the war years for this day. The previous day when he’d heard the official news of the end of hostilities he had got a huge water melon, cut the top out and de-seeded it. He had poured this bottle of rum into it and let it hang overnight supported in a net.
After we had eaten a meal, nothing very grand as food was still very short, he cut the melon into strips. Everybody had at least one slice, the slices were so big that each ear got wet eating it ! The taste was out of this world. Then it was dancing and singing throughout the night, nobody, civilians or military took any notice of the time.
This kind of life seemed to be the pattern for many days; sadly it was only the one melon though !
By this time we had been overseas for more than three years, a long time away from home, so we were overjoyed when the news came that we would be having a months leave in England. Our joy was short lived as we were soon told that the squadron was to be disbanded, we would all be posted to different units. Ron and myself were posted to 256 Squadron based at Udine in Northern Italy. At first this did not seem too bad until we were told that they were going back to Egypt and our promised leave would not take place.
There was nothing we could do about it except to say our farewells to our friends on the squadron and the Salvadori family and be on our way. I did hear later when I was back in civvy street that a similar promise made in Egypt and broken, had resulted in a mutiny. How true this was I do not know.
Back to Egypt for some Cycling !
Soon after arriving at Udine we were packing again to go back to Egypt. We were very unhappy what with the cancelled leave and then to be herded onto cattle trucks, no seats, washing facilities, toilets or hot meals. From Udine in northern Italy to Taranto in the toe of Italy took nearly three days. It was pure hell made worse by the state of our minds; the only consolation was that unlike the poor Jews, we were not heading for the gas chambers.
At Taranto we went straight on board the “Winchester Castle”, at least we could have a decent wash and some good food. After five days sailing the Med we arrived back in Alexandria then on once again to Ismailia to service the squadron’s Mosquito aircraft.
As the war in Europe was over life was much easier than the last time we were there. I feel that I was luckier than Ron in two ways. De-mob was on the cards and as I had been in the forces longer than Ron my number was due before his. I also liked to participate in sport, although Ron liked sport he was not a participant.
I soon found out that cycling was very popular in the Middle East. By now the war had been over about six months and they had really got organised. The “Fraternity of Buckshee Wheelers” had been formed as the controlling body and had lots of clubs. They were linked to the UK by the cycling magazines The Bicycle and Cycling, Ragged Staff (Rex Coley) and Audrey Allis were the UK contacts.
The club that I joined was the Canal Road Club. Joining a club did not infringe any rules as to our English club. Nearby was another club The Scarab Road Club where I found two old friends or I should say opponents; Chick Hens of the Caslenau and Gerry Adams of the Guildford. Reg Harris, later to become world champion several times, was also a member but was invalided home with burst ear drums. The next time that I met Reg was at the Buckshee meeting at Herne Hill, he was by then the World Champion and poor me was his opponent in the sprint.
The first priority was to get a bike. There only appeared to be one dealer and he was in Cairo. It was well known that he was a con artist charging about ten times more than he should however the lads had easily solved this problem. It sounds awful and a tall story but it is true. The chap had everything one required so supply was no problem. His problem was that he could not read or write so we all purchased on the HP, you filled in your own book and recorded your own payments so when we paid a pound it was recorded as ten pounds ! Our conscience was clear as we were paying a fair price, not his inflated one. How he ever balanced his books I don’t know.
I was very fortunate as a Sergeant on our unit was posted to the UK. He had a good machine and said that I could have it if I continued the HP payments. I did this as there was very little left to pay. Whether this was legal or not I have no idea, nobody seemed to care.
Time trial races were held on the Canal Road which ran alongside the Suez Canal and the Great and Small Bitter Lakes. These lakes are so salty that one can float in them with no fear of going under. Some of the longer distance events went miles into the country and hills, we were completely alone, I often wonder now as to what danger we were in.
Massed start events were held on various airfields, on one occasion I was invited to ride in The Grand Prix of Cairo at the very posh Gezira Sports Club, being very lucky I managed to win it.
Grand Prix of Cairo
By now it was well into 1946, most of us had been given our de-mob number, naturally we were all anxious for our number to appear on Daily Routine Orders, thereby knowing that we would be en-route to Blighty.
Having been in longer than Ron my number came up about a week before his. In fact I was almost on my way when his came up, by now I had been overseas for four years.
Soon I was on my way to Alex to once again board the “Winchester Castle” this time it was with joy. We sailed this time to Marseille in the south of France where we were placed in a transit camp for a week. Nobody was very happy about this as we all wanted to get home as quickly as possible, time hung so long with nothing to do. Eventually we were on a train, only hard seats, windows missing, late winter early spring, ready for a trip across the mountains to the English channel with no heating. The weather in Marseille was good, but as we went north through the mountains the journey became horrendous. We were dirty, cold, hungry and very fed up as we expected something better than this. Eventually we reached Dieppe, then onto a boat to Folkestone. At least on the boat it was warmer and we could have a bit of a wash, also a hot cup of tea and some food. At Folkestone it was back on another train but at least it was warmer and more comfortable than the French one. There was no information at all as regards our destination !
It was late afternoon when we left Folkestone so it was soon dark. After several hours we stopped and were told that we could stretch our legs. I soon realised that we were on the outskirts of London, to be precise at the back of the Olympia. I recognized because of the Lyons Factory, only a few miles from beloved home. Some rushed to find a phone, no luck, back on the train, still no information, but we did have a cup of tea and sandwiches. A hot meal would have been more than welcome as we had lived on sandwiches for several days.
In the early hours of the morning we arrived at our destination, stinking and smelly after two and a half days travelling, we were at West Kirby, Liverpool. Strange that when we departed from England it was from Liverpool, now we had arrived back at our point of departure many years later. We were the lucky ones, even dirty and smelly I expect those who did not make it would have been pleased to be in our shoes.
The next six or seven days were spent having medicals, lectures etc, the time seemed to drag, all we wanted to do was to get home. It was very frustrating and worrying when I was told that my departure would be delayed even further. X-rays had shown something on my lungs, possibly TB, thankfully all was well as it appeared that I must have moved as the follow up X-rays were all clear.
A de-mob double breasted dark blue suit was issued together with pay, de-mob record and a railway pass, then it was on the train south and home.
After over six years, more than four of them overseas, one can imagine the joy in our hearts. Not only had we come through unscathed and were on our way home, but also the thought that we would be officially back in civvy street after our three months leave had expired.
601 was awarded a Standard and for the presentation we were invited, with our wives, to Buckingham Palace.
The wives went straight into the Palace Grounds, but Squadron Members past and present had to form up and march in. As the OCA members did not have uniforms we had to wear suits with a bowler hat. Few, if any had a bowler, and so we begged, borrowed or stole one. We then had to swap around with each other to get one to fit, but we forgot whose was whose. I still don’t know how we solved the problem. The march went well and was filmed by GB News, although I was one of many, several clippies at work said “Mr Brown, we saw you on the news at the pictures last night “. After the presentation by Prince Phillip we had light refreshments. Prince Phillip came round and chatted, we did not see the Queen, but Prince Charles and Princess Anne were running around, they were only children at the time. (Click here to see 601 Squadron Standard presentation programme).
A few years later, the Government abolished all Auxiliaries, the squadron was no more. We lost the house that Sir Phillip Sassoon had left us; the Standard was laid up in St Clement Dane in the Strand. This was another very nice day, again with Prince Phillip. In the evening we all went to a cocktail party at County Hall Westminster.
Apart from the Battle of Britain re-union dinner in 1990 at the Victory Club, I cannot remember any more functions. At this do I went on my own as Ron had sadly passed away in 1975.
601 Reunion at the Victory Club, Marble Arch 1990
Captured Junkers Ju87 (“Stuka”) put to use by Allies.