Bryan Colston flew Hurricanes, Spitfires and Mustangs with 225 Squadron.
YOU CAN SEE A PAINTING OF BRYAN COLSTON IN ACTION IN ‘CLOSE ENCOUNTER’ BY PHILIP WEST AT SWA FINE ART.
I am just thinking aloud now, but I remember one time at Beaune when I was air testing a Hurricane, and a pretty old Hurricane at that, but I was the only fighter available, yet we were actually a fighter reconnaissance squadron.
Hurricanes were totally obsolete as fighters at that stage.certainly against 109’s and certainly the 190’s.
About the Americans – There was no doubt about it, they were damn good pilots, well trained, but had no experience of war. We were very green, but we had experience of war. When I say green, we only had a few hours. I expect you’ve heard of squadron leader Burrydear old Russ Burry, I was out on a sweep with him and American lightnings and of course we were keeping RT silence but the Americans were nattering away and got so excited if they saw a 190 or something and this very English voice as you can imagine, and he had a real RAF moustache, you could imagine him twiddling it saying â€œYou bloody Yanks! Shut up! and there was utter silence from then on.
I’ve got hold of a P38 pilot from Alabama.
The other thing was, and I think this shows how green they were, as I say, they were wonderful fighters in the end, was in the very early days when I was a flight commander, one of my pilots was shot down and we found he’d been shot down by American Ack Ack. I happened to come across the colonel who was in command of this unit and his attitude was â€œOh boy, we got him. Which shows doesn’t it.
It is interesting what you say about them being very good pilots because they weren’t very good soldiers by sharp contrast. Their training was obviously very good.
They had the training and the equipment.
That is the other thing that fascinates me so much. We have this idea that the British had all the experience and none of the kit and the Americans had all of the kit but none of the experience.
Forgive me for interrupting, but my memory is not so good these days but that makes me think of another thing. Before we went to Africa we transferred onto Mustangs, which were wonderful aeroplanes but it was like sitting in a luxury car which you didn’t need, as against the Hurricane or the Spitfire. You know the heating and the comfortable seat and the equipment. Enormous cigarette lighter and so on. In the end when we put the Merlin in the Mustang, we had the best fighter in the world.
To go right back to the beginning, can you tell me about your background?
My wife persuaded me to write something down, but it’s not about Africa, it was about an accident I had in a plane. I have had it typed out really for our children. It’s not really a story, it’s a report. In civilian life I was an architect’s surveyor, and my life was spent doing reports and in the service it was reports. I am quite happy to let you have a copy. Anyway, I was born in Buckinghamshire. My father was on the Somme in the First WW, and he was both gassed and wounded. I was at St Paul’s, same as Monty and I was 18 when war broke out in 39 and I left school in 39. I had a very happy childhood. I had one brother younger and an older sister and I had a wonderful last 3 years at school because I was captain of rowing and went round all the regattas. I was normally number 6. I did the head of the river twice.that was wonderful. Then war came.
No question of you not joining up?
No. I was still a naÃ¯ve youth at 18. This may be an interesting little story. I was living down at Honiton and someone told me he was going to join the Air Force as air crew and air crew was an expression I hadn’t heard before. I said â€œWhat do you mean? He said â€œI’m going to become a pilot. I said â€œCan I come too? and we literally got on the train to Exeter and I was in before I knew where I was.
So you barely paused to think Army, Navy or RAF?
No. I think innately at the back of my mind I had a hatred of war because of the stories my father used to tell.
The survivors of WW1 seem to fall into 2 categories – you either talked about it or you didn’t.
He didn’t really like to talk about it but as we got older, he would tell us the odd thing. I was born in 21 only 3 years after the end of the war.
Did his war finish when he was gassed?
I only discovered recently via my brother that he came back to England for a fortnight then he was sent back again.
Do you think that put you off the army?
No. I didn’t give any thought to it.
Did your father get back to a normal life after the war?
Looking back, he was obviously badly affected by it. In a sense, I think he was almost a broken man. He was only a private, he was a conscript, yet his brothers were all commissioned officers.
Why was that?
Luck of the draw? He was the oldest. He had no qualifications as far as I’m aware whereas 2 of them were Royal Engineers.
What was his line of work after the war?
It was just a question of finding a job and I think to begin with he was just a clerk with the Great Western Railway. Eventually he set up on his own and became the director of a property company, which I suppose made me interested in property.
So the plan was for you to become an architect after school until the war came along. When did you join up?
1940. I was going to go to college in London. My parents obviously thought that was a bad idea with the bombing, so I came down to Honiton where I think I was described as a pupil surveyor on an infantry training camp, and we built an infantry training camp. It was there I met this chap and went to join the Air Force, so I was only there for about 3 months.
Where did you do your elementary training?
ITW at Newquay, EFTS at Desswell (?) in Leicestershire, SFTS at Hidlington (??) typical Air Force on twins you see, and I finish up on singles! Although I was only just starting off on twins..when I was in Honiton, I was doing a correspondence course on all the subjects I needed and it included plans and maps. I did turn out, and this I know sounds boastful, and I don’t mean it to be, but I did turn out to be rather good at navigation, which came naturally to me. I have a sense of direction and I think they saw that at the SFTS and so I went to Old Sarum on Lysanders which was of course army co-operation. Then they realised that the army co-operation methods were no good, so they put us on to fighter air craft and called us fighter reconnaissance.
Which is quite separate from PRU?
Absolutely, although a lot of our chaps did go from..I tried to get out of it when we were flying Lysanders up and down the coast looking for the invasion, which never came. We all wanted to get out of it and get into some action.
Lysanders are great for landing in a small field but when you’ve got Spitfires zinging around, I can see that as a young chap you wouldn’t think of them as the most exciting aeroplanes.
A lesson that I think you say was originally learnt in North Africa even as against the desert, we started going out in pairs and it was pretty obvious that we were on reconnaissance because we had a number 2 wheeling behind us. We lost an awful lot that way. Then they re-equipped us because we were in Hurricanes and the fighter squadrons were in Spits. They re-equipped us with Spitfires. We would go out under a sweep and then break away to do reconnaissance.
To go back to the training a little bit, you passed you wings examination.did you do quite well in that?
So that must also have pushed you towards
Once again, I don’t know.
Why did you end up doing army co-operation?
Because I was pushed, as simple as that.
You were good at navigation so you had no choice.
I assume so. Some of them went off to bombers. I’ve got a story about one of my colleagues – he finished up on Blenheims and was killed shortly afterwards.
Did you want to go onto fighters?
Everybody wanted to.
Were you disappointed?
Yes but I soon realised that there was a lot more to army co-operation than just
When did you finish your training?
I joined my first squadron in 41 – 225 squadron. I was in it, which was rather unusual, for over 2 years. I don’t know if you know, we were all officer squadrons. The reason for that was I understood was that we had to have meetings with senior army officers, if they were going to tell us what they wanted us to do or what they wanted us to look for and we were told that sergeants couldn’t.well, I don’t know if there was any truth in that, but it did enable us to go in their messes and talk to them as opposed to standing to attention in front of a table saying yes sir, no sir, 3 bags full sir.
Those early months of life on 225, you were based in England?
Yes, originally they were at Tilshead.
Can you remember roughly when you joined?
I got my wings in June 41 I think. I’ll look it up for you. Then I had to do Old Sarum which was the operational training unit. My first trip in a Lysander was pretty hair raising. Taking off to the west there was Old Sarum hump and I took off, having flown Oxfords and Tigers that was all. It was a winter’s day with sun in your eyes. I think I tried 6 times. They were difficult to fly until you got used to them. You could do things other people couldn’t. The instructors had Gladiators and they would take us up doing fighter tactics.
Were the 16’s Griffin powered or Merlin?
Peppard Merlin. It was beautiful to fly.
To go back to early days with 225 – what was the main stuff you were doing in England?
Basically training and British coastal patrols, looking out for any enemy activity.
We were based at Thruxton. We were the first squadron onto that when it was being built. It would be from Southampton to Torbay, that sort of area.
Did you see much in those days?
One of our chaps got chased by a 109 and that was the main talking point for weeks! That’s why we were all getting fed up in a sense and trying to get on the PRU because we felt nothing was happening.
When did you first hear that you were going to be sent to North Africa?
There were all sorts of rumours until we actually got there that we were going to Norway and places like that. Then we realised when we were issued with tropical kit that it wasn’t going to be Norway!
Did someone come round and say â€œYou’re going to Africa?
We were moved from Thruxton up to Montmerry (?) just south of Edinburgh and there were awful rumours that we were going over seas but when we did finally go in October 42, all the pilotsour squadron had a wing commander commanding it..there was a squadron leader who was almost supernumerary because he had 2 flight lieutenants commanding the flights. We had posted to us a new squadron leader, a chap called Scott who I liked very much and he’d got a DFC in France in the early Lysanders, which as you know were absolutely pummelled. He and I were the only 2 pilots who went with the ground crews on the troop ship. All the other pilots went on a fast boat down to Gib and waited there. We went on the invasion convoy.
Why was that?
I don’t know. It was just the way it was. In a sense, although he’d never say it to me, I think the CO thought I was a responsible character as against some of the others who perhaps weren’t quite so responsible.
Were you a flight leader by this stage?
No, I was a flying officer. So the squadron leader and I went with all the men and of course the non-flying officers, the medical officers and signals officers and that sort of thing and we wet out on this convoy. We were on the Statheden (?). We went almost out to America and then came in and landed at Algiers after the port had been taken on 11 November. Then we marched to Maison Blanche. That was my first real experience of the war. I think I’m right in saying that the first night the Hun came over and dropped these wretched fountain pens and our chaps were picking them up and having their hands blown off. That really did set things going. It was a very tough time as you know. If I lend you some things, will you guarantee to get them back to me? We had our 57th reunion last year. There were 147 at the first reunion and 14 at this one. I’ve been chairing it for about 39 years now. It’s completely unofficial. We asked people to write little anecdotes for the 50th meeting and we produced this book.my father sent me a diary for Christmas 42. I started it I think sometime in January and if you’d like to browse through that. There are some rather childish seeming comments.but yes going back to what we were doing in England, it was basically patrols and training. We did a lot of silly things like having to fly army officers around in Lysanders checking camouflage for military installations and such like. We did a lot of exercising with the army. Practise bombs on Salisbury Plain that sort of thing. We did RTR, artillery shoots, where we would tell the army where their shots were landing and then correct them. Quite frankly, although I didn’t want to go into army co-operation, I realised in the end that it was a fascinating job. We did tactical reconnaissance called Tac R. The strategic boys in big bombers would go miles into Germany, to Berlin, and take photographs. We had the advantage of all our airstrips being as close to the front line as they could possibly be.
You were fully armed?
Yes. We became ? bombers.
If you’re going to take a picture, you might as well drop a bomb.
It wasn’t quite like that because if we were taking photographs, we normally had 8 going out to a specific target.
Did you ever have any fighter tactics or gunnery training?
Oh yes, at Old Sarum with the Gladiators. We did have to be good navigators because we were co-operating with the army, we had a 19 (?) set in the aircraft so we could talk to the army, so we didn’t have any direct control by the airfield controller.
Did you have direct control from the airfield controller as well?
From my diary, I think we must have done because I’ve got notes like.we were recalled over the coast because of bandits in the air..or such like, so they must have been able to contact us but probably through the army set. It’s only a small thing, but when we converted to Spitfires I made a note in my diary..took it up, 40 minutes.lovely aeroplane to fly..and the next day we got operations on the thing.
Even the new recruits at the Battle of Britain weren’t shoved straight up; you had a few days or a week or so. I imagine landing a Spit is a different kettle of fish to landing a Hurricane, with a much wider undercarriage. One of the mysteries to me is why on earth the Spitfires weren’t sent abroad beforehand because production of Spits in the latter end of 40 and 41 far outweighed Hurricane production, and yet fighter command hung on to them. There was this belief that Spits were unsuitable for muddy airfields..
They basically were.
But they’d been doing it in Britain..
It was much easier to write off the undercarriage or tail wheel on the Spitfire on some ?? Hurricane, which as you say had a much wider undercarriage. Plus the fact that the old Hurricane would take an awful lot of beating. I loved the Hurricane, don’t get me wrong. But the Spit was I suppose..I always refer to it.pre-war Morris Minor, good old solid car, that was the Hurricane.the MG Midget was basically the same thing but it was sporty..that was the Spit.
I know there were these problems with the narrow under carriages and I know the 109 had tremendous problems but these problems were outweighed by the effectiveness of them in the air.
I was on this convoy and we almost went out to America to come in with the Americans on the invasion and you got these fleet air arm boys flying seafires, mid Atlantic on these converted merchmen doing that and to this day I remember it and it was one of the bravest things, trying to land a seafire on a deck like that.
They wore G suits too didn’t they, the Seafire pilots? I never understood why the Royal Navy took them in but the RAF didn’t.
This diary that the widow of my number 2 just sent me the extracts from.he says when Pantelleria was asked to surrender, we went over and dropped messages on the island to say put a white cross on the airfield if you are going to surrender, otherwise the Navy is coming in and because it was a long sea crossing from Tunisia and we were doing the photographing then in a Mustang, we did get a Mustang eventually out there, which we used purely for photography, and we could do oblique photography in the Spitfire but couldn’t get the camera down because the fuselage wasn’t deep enough. Apparently I couldn’t get in to the Mustang happily with a dinghy, so my number 2 flew the photographic one and I had to escort him in a Spitfire.
Where did you land in North Africa?
Algiers. They got us into the harbour. That was on the 11th. The French had given up resistance as you know. We marched with our kit to Maison Blanche with all the ground crew. My first trip was escorting some OSTA’s (??) aero P’s, (??) if you’ve come across that expression, down from there to Djella (?) where they were based.
Was that your first time abroad?
It’s funny you should ask that as we were only talking about it the other day – it wasn’t my first time abroad, but for many people it was. Very few members of the squadron had been abroad. I’d only been over to France with my father.
Can you remember how you felt – was there a sense of excitement?
We didn’t know, even when we were on the boat, where we were going. Had no idea this was going to be the North African invasion. All the officers on the ship were issued with a booklet saying where we were going. I’ve got it and I’ll show you if I can find it. That was the first I knew. We were in the Atlantic by then. I can remember making the MO laugh .. he was older than the rest of us. He was looking over the side saying I think we’re in the Med because the water’s blue.
Before you left, did you get leave to say farewell to your parents?
Yes, we had embarkation leave. I went home.
You had to say I’m off, I don’t know where I am going or when I’ll be back..?
Do you think they were terribly anxious for you?
My father only confessed this to me very late in his life, always prayed he’d never have a son. My sister was the eldest and he doted on her, but he didn’t want a boy who might have to go through what he went through. Then of course he had 2 sons. My brother was in Burma and he had a terrible time. He was in the Ox and Bucks and apparently the West Africans were huge fellows were ? by the white officers. He’s told me sincehe doesn’t talk much about it.if they trusted you they’d do anything for you. If they didn’t, you’d have a knife in your back. It couldn’t have been much fun in the jungle.
Did you have much concept of what was going on when you reached Maison Blanche?
Not really. We were in Hurricanes. We’d been briefed.we were going to take Tunis in a couple of weeks or something! Oh no, it was the 12th we arrived in Algiers. November 13 disembarked from (Turned tape over – lost a few words) by myself in a Hurricane. Peter Rodwell was killed on his first sortie, shot down by our own ack ack.
Who was Peter Rodwell?
Another chap on my flight. Soon after we got out there and I would rather you didn’t write this, squadron leader Scott, the chap who got the DFC in France, was sent home LMF (???) do you know what that stands for? I thought that was awful. He was a broken man in the sense that he was going back to do what he managed to get out of France from doing. I had the greatest sympathy for him.
Any man has a quota of bravery and once you’ve passed it, you’ve passed it..
I say, please don’t write about it because I don’t know anything about his family and since that day I’ve had no contact with him, but I’d hate him to read the he was LMF. My A flight commander became squadron leader and I was made flight commander so I was flight commander for practically the whole 10 planes.
It sounds like you were doing a massive variety of things. Hurry (?) bombing..Was most of it low level?
Initially, and this is how Peter Rodwell got killed, we were at 0 feet literally because we were 2 Hurricanes.
That must have been exhilarating flying?
Oh l loved it. I always loved low flying anyway. There’s only one other pilot left who was in North Africa from the beginning and he’s a New Zealander. I spoke to him on the phone a couple of days ago..
Do you know where he is?
Oh yes, I’ve been out to see him.I don’t know if he’d remember it, memories play tricks over 60 years butKen Neill, initially he was my number 2 and we’d been out on a Tac R (?) at North Peak (?) and were coming back and we saw these tanks and saw troops behind them and I said â€œLet them have it Ken. We weren’t supposed to waste ammunition but we did and when we got back we found we’d fired at the Hampshires and the reason was they were being supported by American tanks and the American tanks were turned round so our troops were the wrong side of them and..
Did you hurt any of them?
I am afraid we did. We never heard any details, just that we’d fired on our own. Poor old Ken and I were practically in tears over that.
That was in the very early days was it?
Yes. I don’t think I’ve recorded it in here because as I say the first bit was written from memory. November 20 Tac R was cancelled because the Hun had definitely landed. Returned to Maison Blanche as escort to CO and returned to Beaune early eveningWe went forward to Beaune fairly early.
Were you still classified as an army co-operation squadron?
No, we were called flight reconnaissance. We were very heavily bombed at Beaune.
Was that the first time you’d been bombed?
No. We’d been bombed in Maison Blanche and I’d been bombed in London.
So you had some experience of it?
Oh yes. The captain there, he lost both his legs in one of the raids. Group Captain Appleton, lovely chap. Then there was Peter Hugo, a South African, he was the wing co and became group captain after Appleton lost his legs. It was pretty bad. It was at Beaune when I was flight testing a Hurricane and I was the only British fighter in the sky when a raid came on.
How much did you know about what was going on in the campaign? Presumably you’d heard about Alamein and victory in the desert. Was there a sense that the Germans were on the run?
No but we were convinced we were going to get them on the run and we did get certain BBC bulletins. How I can’t think
Were you surprised by the level of opposition?
I don’t know whether we were as individuals but certainly the army were because they expected to get to Tunis very quickly. Have you read the book Bloody Road to Tunis?
No. I’ll take a note of it though. Oh this was done recently..I’ve never heard of this one at all. I’ve just been given a huge book by an American author. From that you wouldn’t think the British had been involved at all.
Have you ever seen the book Fighters over Tunisia?
I’d pay a lot of money to get hold of that book!………………….Would you like a copy of this transcript?
Oh yes please.
To get back to Africa and those opening weeks, you were doing mainly low level stuff, trying to fund out what the Germans were up to?
Absolutely. In the early days I think it was mostly Tac R. The weather defeated the army. It shouldn’t have been like that at that time of year.
What were your living conditions like at Maison Blanche and Beaune?
We were in tents the whole time. The only time I slept in a bed was when we took over a hotel in Beaune, and then that was bombed to hell.
Was it one man per tent?
No. I was in with the MO and someone else.
Did you have sleeping bags?
No. Camp beds. They were wooden with cross legs. The regular air force chaps who had their own, they had the metal and canvas ones. We dug a hole in the ground and out the tent up over that, so we were below level. When they got to Italy I gather they had better accommodation.
Did you have sleeping bags?
No, I think we must have had issue blankets but I honestly can’t remember. I can’t remember how we shaved. We must have got hot water in a billy can or something. But we kept reasonably tidy. I remember one of the airmen who did hair cutting. It’s funny how one can’t remember the details like shaving. I would say here..up at 4am and did a Tac R at first lightso we never went out bearded, or unshaven.
We had to dig those ourselves, everyone mucked in.
Did you get fed ok?
We had wonderful compo rations which I think was an innovation on that invasion. It was a wooden box with practically everything you wanted in it. A few cigarettes, Horlicks tablets, lavatory paper, tinned beans, bully beef, McOneckies (?). It was brilliant, they were easily transported..
So you did get some hot food every day?
We did when we were reasonably settled on an airstrip.
Who would make it?
We had cooks.
You didn’t have batmen did you?
We did but basically they were put on guard duty. They weren’t just looking after us. The CO had one and I think the officers had one between them.
Do you think it was very tough for the ground crew?
Oh it was. I would be the first to say what a wonderful job the ground crew. This was the book we produced for the 50th reunion and in it I said â€œThe squadron by its very nature, lived close together. Personal beliefs could not be hidden for long. Squadron life was an intimate experience. In most operational roles, each one was directly or indirectly dependent upon the other for survival. There was a mutual trust and reliance one upon the other. This promoted affection and respect. Friendships thus forged endured for years. These relationships after the war because we had a common master, the air, and a common interest, flying. The bond between air crews and ground crews bridged the great divide between the land and the air. Ground and air were both ? they were as one, winning and losing together with the attendant emotions that success and failure brought. Being a close community reminds me of Lou Madley’s quote in Canada in a ? speech when he quoted from Byron’s The Prisoner of Shalom..that power to kill yet strange to tell, in the quiet we had learned to dwell, my very change, my good friends, so much a long communion tends to make swap the ? (Not at all sure I’ve heard this right). If you’d like to borrow that along with the other things, you’re welcome. I’m sure you’ll gloss over the personal things.
I’d love to thanks. Presumably each day you were very hectic. 2 or 3 sorties a day?
Sometime there were periods of boredom because the weather was so bad we couldn’t fly, but we might well still be bombed. Their bombers could get to us.
Had you built slit trenches to dive into?
Well, we’d dug holes and put our tents over them..
So it was a question of diving under. If you were in bed, you got right down?
Did you wear tin hats?
Yes and we wore khaki out there and our rank was in the black stripe.
Evenings when you weren’t flying what did you do?
There was no light except Hurricane lamps. There was a mess tent which was a small marquee but I don’t think we congregated in there except to eat. We were dispersed our tents you see. The final big place we had before we moved into Tunis itself was at Supal Kemis (?) and we took over farm buildings and our kit tents were all round there. But we would sit in a tent in this poor light and play bridge. We had an international bridge player and Irish man. He taught me as I had played before.
Did you read much?
As much as you could in that light, and wrote letters home.
Would you say you enjoyed it?
It’s an awful thing to say but in a sense one did. There was tremendous comradeship.
Did you have particular chums in the squadron? Did everyone get on do you think?
I think we mostly got on and I don’t think it took long to realise who the goodies and the baddies were. It didn’t necessarily mean that you didn’t have anything to do with the baddies and in a sense I had responsibilities as one of the 2 flight commanders
When you say baddies, in what sense?
Some chaps were very naughty in their behaviour, nicking things and such like. Which one didn’t approve of, but you had to accept it.
How about drink?
In the end, the NAAFI supplied us very well.
Were you a smoker?
I smoked a pipe until about 14 years ago. Cigarettes were in pretty good supply through the NAAFI. I think I’m right in saying that most people smoked.
Were you relieved when you got Spitfires?
Was there a sense that the Hurricanes weren’t quite up to the job?
Yes and we knew we were so vulnerable. After a few weeks the Hun knew what we were up to.
How did you change those tactics you spoke to me about earlier?
We didn’t. What we’d do is take off in a squadron of 5’s (?) that were doing a sweep
A different squadron?
Oh yes, a purely fighter squadron who was going up perhaps to patrol an area and relieve another squadron and we would go out with them so as far as the Hun was concerned instead of 12 Spits there were 14. Then we would break away and do the recon and make our way back home normally. Other times, what we did do and what the fighter boys did like was we would lead them on rhubarbs, going up beating up stuff and the reason we would lead was because our navigation had to be good. It was basically map reading.
Did you get the lay of the land pretty quickly? Did you fly with maps on your knees?
Were you looking for familiar landmarks? Using the compass?
Yes and we had a pad strapped to our knees to make notes because couldn’t remember physically everything you’d seen and I happened to be the chap who saw the first Tiger tank.
I saw this damned tank and I was on my own, I’d lost my number 2, and I remember firing at this damn thing – he was only as far away as those flowers over there – and the bullets were just bouncing off.
Were you in a Spitfire then?
No, a Hurricane. It was still early days. When I was being de-briefed by the ALO, because we had a permanent ALO in the squadron, I was telling him this and it was then he told me it was a Tiger, because I didn’t know at the time of course. It was all over in a flash.
Can you remember where?
Somewhere in the north, sort of the Matur (?) area. Exactly where, I don’t know if I record it in my diary. You may come across it in there.
There really was a lot of low flying stuff.
Yes. Later on when we started to take photographs
At this stage you weren’t?
No. Well, we might take the odd oblique but when we got more establishedI am trying to think of the names of these things.but we were taking photographs which the army could convert to do their artillery shoots. In other words, they weren’t shooting on a map they were shooting on a photograph.
What was the process of your briefing?
We had a field telephone in the tent, dispersal, it would go and I’d pick it up as flight commander and we’d get instructions over the phone where to go from the ALO.
What form would the instructions take?
It would be Tac R Matur (?) heavy artillery bombardment going on..and we had to find the gun and tell the army where it was, and if we knew where it was we’d have a bombing attack on it.
You’d be flying at 0 feet for something like that?
In the early days because there was just the 2 of us. When we got more air support, we did get up to about 3,000 feet, still very low, and sometimes we’d get up to 5,000 feet if we were doing a vertical.
Say you’ve got to locate this gun emplacement or whatever. You fly in, do one sweep of the area, curve back, do another sweepwhat happened if you couldn’t locate it?
Well, we had maps but they were basically produced from tourist maps and private photographs. They weren’t all that accurate at times, but for instance if it was reported that the army were being shelled, we would see the flashes of the guns which they couldn’t see because perhaps there was a great hill between them. So it was fairly easy to pin point the guns. But the thing which always amazed me was we would be told and given a map reference to photograph and we’d do it and come back and I could see nothing but these army boys they were looking through Spiro scopes (?) and say there’s weapon bits here and so onfantastic.
So would you radio back to say that you’d taken the photograph?
No, radio silence unless we were talking to the guns, on artillery reconnaissance when we’d be saying â€œBack a bit.
It could be as vague as that?
Yes. I am trying to think which way round it was, but when I started off on Lysanders in 41, believe it or not we had a morse code key. Did have RT. By the time we got onto Hurricanes we had radio telephony. I think we started off using a WW1 system of clock code (?). In other words, we would tell the army that they were landing at 3.15, 100 yards. It was then decided that it was much better for us to instruct the guns, so instead of saying â€œYou’re 3.15 at 100 yards we’d say â€œLeft 100 yards and down a bit or something, so we would actually give the guns instructions.
So then the Spitfires came in. Can you remember any specific sorties that stand out?
Yes the Casserine Pass was one.
I guess you could see it all unfolding beneath you?
Bearing in mind there weren’t very many useful things on the ground such as railway lines or roads or towns even. It was all very much the same. I say here â€œUp at 6.45am to lead the bombers. Stood by all day in the blazing sun but no target came.. so that was a boring day, but we had to be readyNo target came through. Received news via POW’s that our recent raids had been most successful and productive. Saw Nick in the evening up from 241 squadron. Went to bed early. Day off. Air Commodore Cross.. (he was a charming man – his book is well worth reading).
You were saying that the Americans were very good pilots. Did you have much contact with them?
No, we never had any contact with them on the ground. We never took part in any operation where they were apart from this one occasion when they were escorting other aircraft and we got muddled and they were shouting and this was when Russ Burry said Shut up you bloody Yanks. The Casserine was probably the biggest thing we did as a squadron because we had practically all the aircraft airborne and it was a long trip for us down to Casserine. My memory is that the Hun was pushing the Americans back and they sent down some brigade of guards from the north and it’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you could almost see them push the Hun back when they arrived. We lost quite a few aircraft, when I say we, the fighter escort boys.
Did you have any close shaves yourself?
I got shot up quite a lot, but never got shot down.
Did the aircraft jolt when it got hit?
Yes. Not only that but when we were doing this vertical photography, we had to fly straight and level, couldn’t deviate and when these wretched 88’s were going off, the first thing you saw was a big puff of black smoke, then a bang and that was frightening because you had to hold it. Touch wood – we did lose chaps on those – but in a sense, we were very lucky.
Did you lose many?
10 I think in the whole campaign.
That’s quite a lot for one squadron.
Yes, I think we lost 32 aircraft. A lot of chaps got shot down and were captured or parachuted.
Those 10, they were killed?
Did that affect morale at all?
You didn’t really have time to think about it. You’ll see in here, a chap called Johnny Cobb, he was a great pal of mine before I became flight commander. He was a wonderful chap. He was senior to me and I was promoted over him and he never held it against me. He was killed unnecessarily. The CO we had, the wing co, was not popular with most of the chaps. He was ex army, a disciplinarian and I think, looking back it was a bloody good thing we had someone like that. There were a lot of youngsters like myself who needed to be kept controlled. As soon as I became flight commander, I had to become more sensible. When we weren’t on ops or the weather wasn’t very good, the CO always insisted we did training, which was a bit dicey when you were just behind the front line. Johnny went up with some chap and they were doing mock fighter tactics and evasion and he just hit the ground, and that was that.
Difficult to deal with?
I remember him now and every year at the reunion we stand up at 9pm and remember absent friends.
But at the time?
I think in here I say something like I was devastated because he was one of my best friends. But you had to get over it.
Most people seem to have had the attitude, it won’t happen to me.
But feeling scared?
Oh one was scared. If you take that story I wrote about my prang, which was an engine cut on take off. As I say, it must have been utter terror. There you were with no power and you’ve got to hit mother earth again. But these things were soon forgotten. If you started to dwell on it you started to become one of those cases ..
Where it was getting a bit much? Once you were in the air were you alright, it was just leading up to it that was the worst?
Yes, it’s worse waiting for it than when you get there. This number 2 of mine told the most amazing story of when he lost me and decided to come home on his own, turned and found there were 2 109’s in his gun sight, but it was all over so quickly, he didn’t do anything about it. At one point the wing co said we’d be put on a charge if we used our ammunition because we weren’t supposed to be shooting aircraft down. We were supposed to be doing reconnaissance and bringing information back. That was our job.
Did you come across a chap called Adrian Warburton?
Yes, he came over, I think it was at Beaune I met him. He flew over from Malta. I also met Randolph Churchill, and I didn’t think much of him. He was wearing a green beret, that would have been a commander wouldn’t it?
Did you ever see Monty or Alex?
I saw them and I’ve got a photograph from a distance.
Was there a general feeling of respect for Alexander?
I think so.
You thought he was good news?
I haven’t come across a single person who liked Monty.
I can believe that, but as far as the public were concerned, it was a brilliant campaign. When you start to analyse it, there were a lot of people who did marvellous jobs who hardly got a mention. As far as decorations go, it depended who was there to see what was going on. If you were up with a lot of fighter boys and they saw you shoot down a couple of aircraft, you could claim those. If you were on a reconnaissance trip you might be blasted to hell with flack but nobody saw you because you were on your own. I don’t say this with any feeling ofI know fellows who deserved bloody great gongs and never got anything.
What happened to you in Tunis? You said you were invalided out?
Oh it was nothing glamorous. We went down to Boufeesha which was just north of Spax and Sous, after the campaign was finally over and we started a training programme them because we were getting new pilots in all the time and I came in in a Hurricane and landing I said to the flight sergeant, â€œYou know flight, I couldn’t see a bloody thing when I landed. He said â€œYou’d better go and see the doctor. I did and he was a personal friend of mine and he said â€œTake an aspirin and lie down but to cut a long story short, I had typhoid and so did the doc. It really created a problem out there. I think there were 10 of us, a petty officer, me, the doc, an army group..we went into the 97th general hospital, an army tented hospital on the flats outside Tunis. We were isolated in a small marquee. I was apparently delirious for 10 days. We had Italian prisoners as nurses and I said â€œWhy do they keep taking these stretchers out with Union Jacks over them? and out of the 10, they all died except me and the doc. We were very lucky. They wouldn’t let me go back to flying and I was invalided back. I was off flying for some months.
Why were you still flying Hurricanes at that point?
We still had Hurricanes and a Mustang
I then went to University in London. I became a surveyor and then went on to architecture and stayed in that til I retired in 67. Have you seen the book The Unseen Eye? He’s written this book which is all about reconnaissance – it makes a good read but it’s not the truth, the whole truth & nothing but the truth. Well, there aren’t exactly untruths but having been there with him, the gloss is in the wrong place.
When you were doing the low level flights, presumably you can see things blow up?
Yes. That was a problem. Some of the chaps did get knocked out of the sky by their own blast because we were going so low. We’d never been trained to do dive bombing. The first time we did it was out there.
As a pilot, you don’t necessarily see the enemy as much – you see a truck or a plane..did it ever cross your mind?
Yes, it did me, but other people said it didn’t at all.
Did it worry you at all?
It didn’t worry me because I knew it had to be done but I was very conscious of it. One day I was flying by myself along the side of a mountain, following the road and I came around the bend and there was a German convoy and they fired at me and I got hit and I thought right, if I’m going to go downso I came round and this blooming machine gunner, I could see him and he was firing at me and I went straight at him firing and he bowled (?) over and I thought what a brave chap, to have a Spitfire coming at you firing, and he kept on firingthen I had to turn very sharply to avoid the hill.
Now looking at photos – have listened to it all and don’t think it requires complete transcription
NAAFI kept us pretty well supplied – beer, wines, spirits everything. I note in my diary..got tight last night, but we were all so young.
Did you think highly of Winston Churchill?
I did yes.
Did you have much to do with the Arabs?
Yes, we used to buy eggs from them.
All right to deal with?
No. They used to strip the chaps when they were shot down.
What did you think of Tunis?
I didn’t see an awful lot of it.
Did you ever row again when you got back?
No, because I damaged my back during the war.
Who’s this chap who looks oriental?
Yes, Charlie. We used to call him Charlie Chan. He was Chinese from Singapore. Last year I got a letter from his grand daughter. She came over here, as she wanted to find out what he’s done in the war – he’s long since dead. We had a meal with her. She’s collecting all sorts of material about him. He was a wonderful little chap.
He was a pilot?
Oh yes. I was able to tell her some stories – he was so excited when he joined us he took off with his gun button on fire and sprayed his number 1 taking off. That chap there is Hugh Michael who got the VC. He went on to business and out in North Africa they were raiding Beserka (?) and everyone was shut down and he just ploughed on and did his duty..we had a reunion in 92 out in Canada. Myself and this chap here were the first 2 RAF chaps into Tunis, on the ground you know.