What did you do after the war?
I qualified……let me go back a bit further. When war broke out I would have been 15. When I left school at 16, I went to post office engineering – the forerunner of BT. I quite enjoyed it. We were in automatic telephone exchanged and that sort of thing and also I was on construction as well. In those days, I lived in Maidenhead and one of the places we went to was White Waltham which was the head of the ATA, and we did quite a lot of work there and it must have cost them a bomb because I don’t think I was very productive on the work side; I enjoyed everything else. After I went in the RAF …..when you got the call up time, you had to play this very carefully – you could join the RAF at 17 – boy-like, but then you’d be allocated a craft to work on. What I wanted to do was fly and I didn’t want to wait to get call up papers, because, you can hardly believe it now, you could end up as a Bevan Boy down the mines, but you had to volunteer almost precisely at 18 and a quarter, because that was when the RAF would allow you to start flying. So I volunteered and I got sent up to Oxford University for a medical and there was a written exam but it wasn’t too frightening. The medical was pretty thorough and the interesting thing to me with the medical was blowing up the mercury. There was a pipe and a tube and on the end there was a flattened tunnel with a couple of little bars so when you blew it up you couldn’t stick your tongue in it and lock it. It was very cunning. What you had to do was blow this mercury up to a certain height and hold it steady and you were supposed to do that for a minute and meanwhile the old MO would go round with his stethoscope, checking all the way round. Eventually he said “That’s fine.” I said “That was a long minute.” He said “You were doing so well, it was almost 2 minutes.” I don’t think I’ve been the same since! The other one I think was called the Bartlett test. If you can imagine a cathode ray tube about a foot square and in this was a circle sort of engraved and you sat in what was like a mock up cockpit; you had a stick; you had rudders and you had a lever at the side. Your stick and rudders controlled a little light moving around and you could move it into the circle and you had a red and green – port and starboard lights I suppose they were and these were controlled by this lever. What happened was you were given 5 minutes or so to try it out and then they put quite a cunning programme on; this little dot would wander around trying to get out of the circle and you had to keep it in there and every time it got out it registered a fault and meanwhile you had to watch these 2 lights, so if the green one came on, you had to push – shall we say – the lever forward til it went out and if you pushed the wrong way, it would register a fault. And the red one came on and you had to do it the other way. It was fun but that was to make sure you had the aptitude and feel for it. Looking back I think that was a brilliant to do. I was surprised; not many of us got through. A lot of bods failed due to heavy smoking and couldn’t puff. There was nothing against smoking in those days.
Tell me about where you were born and brought up.
I was born in London in 1923 and went to school there and then we moved to Maidenhead in 1937. My father spent his whole life on the Great Western Railway working in the Chief Engineer’s office. I am not quite sure to what degree he was an engineer although he always supported me on that side. He really thought there was only one engineer and that was Brunel. He had so much information on him. He took me to Paddington Station when I was a kid and pointed out that it had been extended using tie rods, but that Brunel hadn’t needed tie rods to build it!
You got on well with your father?
Oh yes; smashing. I had an older sister; 3 years older and a younger brother; 8 years younger.
Why did you move to Maidenhead?
Just to get out of London; it was rather a nice thought to get out of London. It was still on the GW line so it was no problem to get to London and in fact it did help when the war occurred because they all moved down to Aldermaston, which was just down the other way, so convenient.
Were you near the river in Maidenhead?
Pickney’s Green, on the way to Marlow……….when I was de-mobbed, I initially went back to Post Office Engineering because there was a labour regulation on then but I had applied for a Government business training course which was a full time course and I qualified for it and did it and I went to Pirelli. They were leading cable makers and finally I was working on 400,000 volt cable systems. I was privileged in the sense that – I was 27 – in working on one of every machine in the Company. I had a mechanical and electrical background so I lapped it all up. I then went outside as an engineer on construction work and then the boss asked me if I’d go to Dublin and install their highest voltage cables which were 110,000 volts. Being Irish, they worked on a different voltage range. I was 28 when I went out there and had a year out there. I had arranged to get married and the boss said “I expect you’d like to come back for that?!” We got married and my wife then came out too. There was no rationing out there while there was here. It was fun. We came back and were down near Brighton, working on the power station. Then I designed one or 2 things and the boss said he wanted me back in the works and it wasn’t long before I was in charge of all contract estimating and that was fun. It was world wide and these were big jobs. Then I was commercial manager and then I was assistant to the MD. It was fun; I enjoyed it. I had 37 years; 35 I enjoyed and the last 2 were lousy. My MD, we were like chalk and cheese, but we got on brilliantly together. He was 5 years older than me and he retired, and I was too old to take over but they brought someone in from outside who was a civil engineer and he hadn’t got a clue about electricity. I couldn’t discuss things with him. I used to negotiate world wide from the States, South America…..
So quite a bit of travel?
Oh yes; all the Arab States – Iraq, Kuwait, Dubai, Saudi Arabia.
Did you enjoy the travelling?
Oh yes, I really did. In those days I only had to mention that I’d flown Spits and it was “Come and sit in the co-pilot’s seat.” It was brilliant; you could chat away and it used to be marvellous. All that’s gone now; such a shame. Anyway, this bod was no good at all and he didn’t like me and didn’t want an assistant. He actually had a heart attack out in Riyadh and that put paid to him. It didn’t kill him but he didn’t come back. Then they put an accountant in charge – of the construction side?! Summing my life up, except I lost my wife 8 years ago, I’ve had a smashing life; I’ve really enjoyed it.
Tell me why you wanted to join the RAF so much. Was it a childhood fascination?
In one sense, yes……perhaps I am digressing too much. When I was 6, I had the old tonsils and adenoids out, and following that I had Rheumatic Fever and I was off for 6 months from school. While I was off sick, we went down to Somerset where some of my relatives live and stayed down there for an extended holiday to help me come round a bit and I had a model aeroplane down there and from then onwards used to do quite a bit with gliders as well. There’s a hill near Marlow called Winter Hill and it was just the place to chuck your gilders about; they’d go for ages and that was fun. The church I was at, there were 3 of us, probably 9 or 10 months spanned our ages and I was the youngest and we all volunteered for air crew, but the other 2 got on as navigators. They had this PNB scheme. The RAF were very cunning and I don’t blame them. There were so many volunteers for air crew and the RAF had this scheme – Pilot, Navigator, Bomb aimer, so you go from one to the other which was fair enough. These 2 pals of mine ended up as navigators; one on heavy bombers and one on Beaufighters (?).
Did they both make it through?
Yes they did, but both have gone since. That was great; we were all keen together; all volunteered together.
So you pretty much volunteered at 18 ¼ on the button?
Presumably you all wanted to be fighter pilots, did you?
Yes; it was one of these funny things. That’s what we’d prefer to be. I can’t think of any of the chaps I knew who volunteered to be a bomber pilot.
You remember the Battle of Britain and all that?
Oh yes. This was ’42, early ’42. I think I volunteered in January ’42.
Did you take an interest in the different models of aircraft?
I mean once the war began. Did you know the difference between a Spitfire and a Hurricane and ….
Oh not only that but White Waltham….I used to be up there watching them. The Air Transport Auxiliary had all sorts of kites; secret kites. The Barracuda – no-one knew about the Barracuda at that time. It was fascinating.
Did you keep aircraft identification charts and ….
Oh yes, I’ve still got the books.
So when you did join up you knew exactly what was what?
And were the Spitfires the kind of number one?
They were really, yes. I think about 1932….we always went on holiday every year. My father would have passes and privileged tickets and such like. So we went to the Isle of Wight and were coming back, on the ferry, and the Cider Trophy race was on. They were little dots really but it nearly tipped the boat up everyone looking up that way. That was one of the initial things that really got me interested. I can remember at junior school arguing with somebody “If you can fly at 200 miles an hour, what’s that a minute?” and this sort of thing. I was fascinated by it. From London we went to Ludlow on a toughening up course and we were building a permanent site for the RAF regiment which wasn’t ?? then. I worked on a reservoir they were building. We were under canvas; 8 to a bell tent and it was November; a bit cold. Everything was frozen up. We used to go to a big marquee for breakfast and we had a pint mug, and my second cup of tea, I brought back and shaved in it. You couldn’t get any hot water you see. We went from there down to Babbacombe, near Torquay and did our ITW there. Every time you went anywhere you could be scrubbed. I got through that all right and went from there to Shameford (?) the grading school, to check if you were ok to fly, on the old Tiger Moths and that was beautiful. That was the first time I’d ever been up and fortunately from there, it was on the GW line and only just down the line to Maidenhead; no distance.
Were your parents happy about you joining the RAF?
They were ok.
They accepted it was something you had to do?
Incidentally, had your father been in the First World War?
No, he hadn’t. I am not quite sure why – it was ill-health of some sort, but mother was obviously concerned – jumping back a bit again – when I came back from Oxford for the medical, she said “What did they say about the Rheumatic Fever?” I said “Nothing Mum.” She looked at me and being a wise mum, she didn’t ask any more, but I hadn’t mentioned it! At ITW I reported sick for something or other and there was a young Canadian medical officer and he went through my background and asked me what I’d had. I told him all the usual kids complaints. He looked me in the eye and said “And nothing else?” I couldn’t lie then….up til then I hadn’t had to lie, I just hadn’t said anything. I said “I had a touch of Rheumatic Fever….” He said “You shouldn’t be here!” I said “Come off it; I got over it and there are no problems.” He said “I’m going to write this in red ink on your record.” I thought oh hell, I’ve lost out. But nothing ever came of it. He did write it down. It didn’t affect me, at least I don’t think it did! Went to training school and that weeded out those they thought didn’t have the aptitude for being a pilot and all these poor so and so’s were then put on navigation or bomb aiming. I got through and I was very pleased with that. In those days we didn’t even have a telephone at home. I arrived a bit late home one Friday – I had a 48 hour pass for the weekend. Mum said “What happened to you?” I said “I went solo!”
So initially you were on Tiger Moths and then you went onto Harvards?
Harvards yes, but in South Africa. I went to Heaton Park in Manchester and then went from there eventually to Durock (?) and it was quite funny. We went out on this ferry thing and there was a dirty great British troop ship and we went passed it and in fact it was an American one. HMHT – His Majesty’s Hired Transport – Argentina – brilliant. We slept in the library. We were told it carried 600 luxury passengers in peacetime and there were 3,000 of us on board. They had multiple bunks 6 high; tubular steel ones, in blocks of 24. I got allocated right down the bottom. I thought blow that and got out and joined the queue again. The one I anted to go for was the one immediately under the top one; not the top one because there was only 18 inches to the ceiling, and the tannoy was there. I worked out that if anything hit us, I could get up to the top one and crawl along instead of trying to get down into the gangways, and that’s what happened; I was near the top. We went in a convoy and had an aircraft carrier and a cruiser with us. We were attacked by a ? courier. We all went to the starboard side and it tilted the vessel and they had to call lifeboat stations to balance the ship again. When we got level with Gib, we lost the aircraft carrier and the cruiser and just carried on – I think there was the odd destroyer with us. There were U boats around. One morning, I woke up and to my amazement, the sun was rising in the west, and I suddenly realised that we’d turned round; there were too many U boats. 3 of the convoy were sunk but we were all right. We pulled into Freetown and went from there down to Durban; to Clarewood and that’s where we disembarked.
It must have seemed like a big adventure didn’t it?
Oh yes; I was 19 and there were some army and some RAF nurses and there was an old lady on board and she must have been about 85 and she was going out to ? in India and we felt a bit humble to see her…I suppose she got special….It was amazing that at a time like that, they were prepared to let her…..we didn’t get off in Cape Town. We landed at Durban and she stayed on board because they were going on to India. We went by train from Durban through the Valley of 1,000 Hills – lovely. We did training on Tiger Moths at Rumpfontein (?) and then came down to Bloemfontein. All the time we were having tests and could have been chucked out any time.
Would those who got chucked out just have been put on the next ship back?
Oh yes; at Bloemsprech (?) near Bloemfontein we trained on Harvards and they were brilliant; lovely kites. Then we had our final test there and that’s where I got my wings which was memorable and got commissioned at the same time.
So were you singled out at that point for a commission? I’ve never really got to the bottom of why some people were singled out for commission and why others stayed sergeants.
I don’t know; I presume it was a summary of your ground subjects and how you got on with that, because you had paper tests all the time, and also flying tests.
You must have been thrilled weren’t you?
Oh yes I was.
You didn’t know then what area of the RAF you were going to be going to?
All the others came back to the UK.
But you didn’t know you were going to be on fighters at that point did you?
Oh no, not at all. Oh no, I’m wrong – at the end of the Tiger Moth stage we knew.
Because some were put on Anson’s…..
Yes they were – we were assessed at that stage. I was just thinking when did we go training on bombers? And of course they trained on Anson’s when we were training on Harvards.
So you knew you were going to be on single engines?
Oh yes, but didn’t know what. That was thrilling actually because we were down at Clarewood Camp, just outside Durban and we were down there until it was time for us to go and we thought we’d be going back to the UK, but instead we were posted up to Cairo and it was thrilling going up. We went in a flying boat. It took 4 days. We came up through Portuguese East Africa so we had to travel as civilians. We had to buy a pair of grey slacks and a white shirt to travel. It was fun though; we really enjoyed it. We got to Khartoum and landed on the White Nile or the Blue Nile and the kit was split. All the heavy stuff was sent up by boat and stuff I could carry went in the hold on the flying boat. At Khartoum, we went into the permanent RAF station there but my luggage had gone to the hotel. I said to this officer “Don’t worry, I’m happy in my white shirt and grey slacks.” He said “You’re not coming in the mess like that! We’ll go and get it!” I’d never come across anything quite like that. There was a colossal table, superbly polished with oval ends. Behind everyone stood the equivalent of a waiter. It was amazing. We only stayed there one night though and then we went to Cairo and stayed at the Heliopolis Palace Hotel, which was a transit camp as far as we were concerned. Then we got to know a bit of Cairo and then we were posted to Peccatitver (?) in Palestine; about 8 miles from Tel Aviv. It was an old First World War aerodrome and I think it was an RAF drome in those days. We had ground subjects (?) obviously but also we then had instruction on Hurricanes initially. I enjoyed flying the Hurricane but not as much as the Spit. One of the good things about the Hurricane was the wide undercart which for landing is very important. The runways crossed, if you can imagine like that, not in the middle – right down the end and between the 2 runways it was filled up with concrete. It was an area for maintenance work. We used to take off and first flight in a Hurricane – up til then you always had an instructor with you and at this stage you’d studied everything on the ground; where all the instruments were and how to do this and that, but you could never practise the feeling of being beaten up the backside by 1,500 horse chucking you in the air. It was great; open the throttle and the first time….and then you hadn’t got enough hands. You opened the throttle; hand on the stick and…..ahhh….now I’ve got to get the undercart up. You can’t release the throttle until you’ve done up the friction nut to hold it, otherwise it’ll run back, so you haven’t got enough hands. Press a button which gave you hydraulic power for – can’t remember exactly – say a minute, and then down here you had like on a gearbox, H slots and a gear lever in the middle. In the Hurricane, you moved it over and pushed it up and the undercart comes up. You couldn’t push it straight up because it had a little locking device to stop you doing it accidentally. So you had to release that; you needed about 4 hands really, and while you were doing this, people standing at the side would see this kite going like this! The funny thing was when you were coming into land and the cry would go up from the blokes working in this area, “First landing!” And they’d all get out of the way because coming into land, anything might happen. All you had to think about when you took off first time was I’ve got to put it down safely.
Presumably you just got used to it and evolved techniques of hand swapping after a while.
It was a similar set up in the Spitfire wasn’t it? Swapping over hands all the time?
Yes but somehow it didn’t seem so daunting in a Spit. The Spit was lovely. Interesting thing too is, people used to say to me “How do you keep an eye on all the instruments?” Because you’ve got a couple of dozen instruments to keep an eye on, and I said “If you’re out somewhere walking and you glance at your watch, you glance at your watch for one reason. How’s the time? Am I in good time or have I got to speed up a bit? Having glanced at your watch, if I said to you ‘what is the time?’ you’d look at it again and tell me what the time was. That’s human nature. When you first looked at it, you didn’t actually read that it was 27 minutes past, just that you were alright for time, and that’s the same for the instruments. You glance at the instruments and if one’s wrong you spot it.” It’s like when we had cameras in the kite; oblique camera or a couple of verticals. You can imagine with a couple of verticals you could have a smashing sight; hole in the bottom; lovely view; you get it spot on and you wouldn’t know what hit you and the same with the actual camera. It’s at an angle like that, behind you of course. On the actual canopy, you had a little circle with a cross and you looked through there and you had 3 markings on the wing, just tank (?) markings – foreground, middle and distance and you just lined that up and that was it. When you think about it, it was quite brilliant.
What was the button for taking the picture?
There was a box and you pressed a button on the box and also if you were flying at a certain height, you could take verticals. All vertical shots overlapped by – was it 10%? – no, more than that I think. If you lost one, you still had a slight overlap. The big verticals overlapped slightly that way as well. The film was Kodak Super XX (?); very good film, but when you came back from an op and you used x amount of film, the rest of it wasn’t any use. There wasn’t enough to go out on another op and we had permission to use it and our dark room which was in Palestine, the boys rigged up a Heath Robinson gadget with a couple of razor blades and that cut a strip out of the film and on either side it left the width of film for a 120 or 620 camera and we were allowed to use this film.
You met Ken Neill I think.
Yes, in Peccatitver (?). He was resting there between ops. I was writing to him some time ago and I reminded him that it was thanks to him I got my first leave; he signed my first leave and we hadn’t had leave for ages. Ken was great.
You got out there June or July ’44; that’s over 2 years isn’t it?
It’s amazing to me, to think they were that thorough during the war. When the war ended, we thought we’d be going out to the Far East initially.
Was there a part of you that was champing at the bit to get going? Can you remember when you got to Palestine?
I’ve still got my ? (logbook??) I covered that in waterproofing when we did the invasion of Southern France. I put it on just for the fun of it. Oh, I missed out the fact that when we were in Cairo, we spent a week in the Middle East School of Artillery. Then 74 OUT Penacitva – that was April ’44 and then back to Cairo and over to Naples in June.
What were you doing in Naples? Just waiting to be posted?
Yes, waiting to be posted.
What does BPD stand for?
? Personnel Depot or Dispersal, or something like that.
So you joined 225 squadron on 21 July?
Yes, actually, we joined them and then they sent us off to Pescara to get a bit more flying in before we did the invasion of Southern France, which was good because we’d spent long periods not flying.
When did you do your first Spitfire flight?
We only flew Hurricanes in our initial training and then went straight onto Spits. There’s my extract of the Flying Boat journey. Ken Neill took me on my first op. He was our flight commander and he and Howie became very good friends. We didn’t lose too many, in fact when we landed in the South of France, we landed at St Tropez and – went to Corsica first and in fact the squadron operated from Corsica into Italy to conceal the fact that the squadron had moved to Corsica; they still flew ops into Italy. But I hadn’t been on ops until we started the invasion of Southern France. In St Tropez there was a dirt strip and it was August and really hot and when kites landed, this dust cloud would go up; terrible and we lost one chap coming in, Pete Cable. He was killed; the prop bent and he was killed. We had a Fleet Air Arm pilot; there was an aircraft carrier, although it was an American set up, and he being a Fleet Air Arm bod looked around for a bit of water and put it down in the river and swam ashore. We pulled his leg. We pressed on up through France and thought we’d meet up with the others and get back to the UK, but we got as far as Lyons and then went back to Italy. We were in Marseilles harbour on LSD (?) which was a Royal Naval one but we came back on an American one and we were in harbour for days because it was so rough and these flat bottom things were terrible at sea. Eventually they said we were going to go and I’d never been sick on a boat before but I was then; we all were. It was terrible. We came down into Leghorn and this was late at night and being a fully mobile unit there were trucks and trucks and they started up down below and the fans hadn’t been turned on and suddenly the cry went up that people were passing out and we had to get the trucks off as fast as we could. We had to get people out of the trucks and laid them on the quayside. Fortunately, being an RAF squadron, we had plenty of oxygen and we pumped it into them but some of them had to go to hospital.
When did you get back to Italy after the invasion of France? It was quite quick wasn’t it?
That’s a good photo.
That was on my 100th op, taken by a pal of mine. A tour was supposed to be 100 ops and when the war ended, I’d done 99 and I was furious! After the war there was trouble with Tito and we were instructed to do practise flights over Yugoslavia to see what was happening and we weren’t to record it. I remember hearing on the BBC news that there’d been some complaints about RAF kites flying over Yugoslavia and the Air Ministry assured them it was just when a chap got lost! On one of the trips, when we came back, I said to the CO, “We were fired on you know!” “That was an op!” he said and so I got my 100 ops. Well, seeing we were fired on, I thought they couldn’t object to that. He was a funny one old Tito; he wanted Trieste. We got back to Florence on the 8 October.
So you were in France between August and October?
Yes that’s right and that’s when we went straight to the Villa Cora. That was a lovely hotel. It’s within Florence but just on the edge.
Peretola was the airfield?
Yes, it had a short runway.
Did you have your own room in the hotel?
No; it was completely stripped out and we had one of the big rooms. It was like a dormitory and I suppose there must have been about a dozen of us in there sleeping on camp beds, which we used all the time anyway. When I first joined the squadron, the first time I did my bedroll up, I left my mirror in it and smashed it. Can you imagine if I’d been superstitious, just before joining my first squadron?! It didn’t worry me.
Did you have any superstitions at all?
No, the only things that one tended to do was to do things in a certain sequence when you got in a kite; you felt you ought to do it that way and actually it was practical more than anything.
It meant you were thorough.
There was a good atmosphere on the squadron?
Oh smashing yes; we were all in the same boat and it was rather unique – we were all commissioned so we had to direct the army and sometimes the Navy if we were near the coast perhaps on gunfire and this sort of thing.
This period when you first arrived at the squadron and were then immediately sent off again – when did you learn the techniques of photography and the ? system?
We learnt all that at Petticitva.
So you knew you were going to be on armed technical reconnaissance?
Oh yes; Petticitva was solely for training reconnaissance work; that’s all.
Which is why Ken was there?
That’s right and the CO there at the time was McCandlish; Mac as we used to call him, the WingCo, and when I got to the squadron he’d come there as well. All our CO’s during wartime operations were always WingCo’s; not squadron leaders. We had a squadron leader of course but he was squadron leader Air. I suppose because we were doing quite an important job and also we were all commissioned officers; it seemed to move it up a step.
Were you part of a wing?
Oh yes, I was 324 at one time. Ken took me up on my first op in France and that was great. I flew a few ops there and then came back and did virtually all my other ops basically from Florence; most of them, because we were there for 7 months; the Gothic Line was static. From October til the end of the war really. We did move up just a bit, but not much.
Was it a tarmac runway?
Concrete; Jerry had blown it up in 2 places but it was serviceable.
They blew it up when they retreated from Florence?
Yes; in fact they blew up all the bridges in Florence except ??
It was a particularly foul winter. Did that make flying conditions difficult?
Yes and not only that, there were occasions when everything was grounded and we were the first off every time; we did weather recce. It doesn’t matter what the weather is like here; it may be clearing up, but what’s it like the other side?
Yes, particularly with all the mountains; you could get such variations in the weather.
And that was quite concerning. I remember on one occasion – I had a Canadian, Bud Dowdall (?) – young chap, he was my number 2 and we’d been up on one of these recce’s and we’d been sandwiched between clouds at shall we say 10,000 and clouds below – and these were solid – at shall we say about 6,000; we were heading north to try to see what the weather was like and it was the same all the way along. I said we might as well head back because it was no good. Where’s back? You can’t see the ground or anything. So head south and call out for a homing. They were brilliant; gave you a homing….
And the homing would be what?
Telling you what degrees to fly, so you just set it on the compass and off you go. You’re called up every few minutes to make sure you haven’t wandered, which was great and then the chap controlling you would say “Start letting yourself down; 200 for the minute, down through the cloud….” Mountains everywhere! We used to say there were rocks in those clouds. I remember saying to him on this particular op “Thanks a lot; we’ll hang on for a bit and see if there’s a hole in the cloud for us to dive through.” We went round and round and there was no blooming hole in the cloud. Very humbly I said “We need another homing!” He said “I’ll bring you down! First thing you’ll see is the cathedral.” And we broke cloud at 400 foot. Cor! And we came into land and landing when the weather’s like that – the facilities we had were 2 40 gallon drums, one either side of the runway, filled with muck and waste aviation engine oil burning, and you had this glow either side and you landed in between them and that was it.
All those mountains, it must have made life very difficult. Did it affect turbulence?
Oh yes; a lot of our flying from there was in the valleys,
So you were below the height of the mountains?
Yes and not only that, we could have fire coming down on us, because we did a lot of low level work. There’d be pockets in the mountains…..
Amazing you didn’t have more casualties because the low level stuff was so dangerous.
It was dangerous; you didn’t know much about ground fire. If you were at say 6,000 feet, you’d probably got 40mm coming up and that was a small grey burst; you could see it, and if you were at say 8,000 and above, you got the 88 which was the black burst and you could see those all right and you felt a bit immune because you felt you could dodge them but if you were on dawn sorties for example, you were over the other side when the sun came up and you’d watch the tracer come up and it looked lovely! You felt quite safe until you thought crikey, I can’t see what’s coming up with it. The tracer was probably one in 5 or one in 10; you couldn’t see the other stuff. We were pretty fortunate. Ken got shot down by flak.
What were you doing that day?
Just a recce.
I seem to remember him saying he’d spotted some tanks or something and went down to have a bit of a look?
The trouble is we didn’t often record much; just a line – here we are – all I’ve got down here is “Ken Neill bailed out at – approximate position – due to engine failure, probably light flak.” At that stage I thought that was probably what it was and it was. December 13th! Piacenzo, Pissano, Bulla and Massa (?) – that was the area….
So you were on the Corsica side?
Yes, we did so much round the mountains there.
In Tunisia there was a lot of armed reconnaissance; Ken & Brian would go off and drop bombs…..
We didn’t drop bombs but we were fully armed.
So you’d shoot up stuff if you saw it?
Oh yes; strafing, no problem at all. The thing was though, it was drummed in – you’re expected to get the information and get back. Don’t try and be clever; your job is to get information and get back; that’s why you’ve got a kite like this and to defend yourself if you had to and of course we were very fortunate. Doing so much low level work, we were there and gone.
Your low level work – you were never loitering around directing artillery?
Oh we did that as well and that would be at about 15,000 feet which was not very nice.
Could you see much from that height?
Yes; shall we say from 8,000 to 15,000; it varied from situation, but that meant you were flying back and forwards and security is not too good flying back and forwards like that.
Looking at photographs…… So you went back to Florence?
I went back last year and I did this as a presentation.
??? Were they clipped winged?
Oh yes; all clipped because they were low level.
The button we used to press; you’ve got A, B, C and D on the VHF radio and that was the channel we were on – Charlie and then you’d pull up those codes and they’d put it on and ?
So when you were directing a gun crew, how did that work. You’d get up in the morning and have a squadron briefing would you?
Yes; you had the ALO – Army Liaison Officer – he’d give you one of these photographic maps and you’d mark them up and once you were in position, you’d call up on this channel, Charlie, and the Army would reply; some lieutenant or captain and you’d say “Target….” And you’d give the letters. And they’d say “Right, lay on that target.” First thing you’d say was “Couple of rounds of gunfire; of smoke.” And you’d say for example “Miles away!” And correct them and then when they were virtually in line, you might say “Left 200 or drop 200” and move them til they were on the target.
You were going at quite a pace; you’d be over in a flash?
Oh yes; you’re back behind it; not directly over it; you’re looking obliquely at it and then when they straddle the target, you call for half a dozen rounds of gunfire or whatever. When you gave the order, they’d say “Fire!” and you knew you had exactly one minute to look for a landing. It was great. If we had a lot of stuff chucked up at us, we’d say “We’ve got another target for you.” “OK” they’d say. “Drop 200; left 200” we’d say, and then it would be “Clobbered it! Great!” It was fun.
You did find it quite exciting?
Oh yes; it was.
Did you have any close shaves?
Nothing that really frightened the life out of me. Sometimes I thought that was a bit close! We were all in the same boat we tended to think they were just part of the general overheads.
Did you have any particular buddies?
Oh yes; we tended to group a bit too. The chap who took that photo, he was Bob Hill-Venning (?) but he was known as Bon. I don’t know why, but he said he was always known as Bon and so we called him Bon. He was a very good friend; died years ago of cancer. Another one, who’s still knocking around – saw him at the last reunion – Maurice Potts. Then there’s Des Macey who’s still around and Pippler (?), who was always known as Pip. There was quite a group of us but we were a group who expanded quickly in the sense of we might be half a dozen and down to 3 and then back up to 8; just all together and we were close. Alan Holt who did that painting; I reckon it’s as good as a photograph.
And when you did these operations where you were assisting the artillery, would there just be a pair of you?
Just the pair of us, yes.
And you’d just go back and forth like that?
So you had your minute to wait for the shell to land? So that’s your cue to make sure you were in the right position to see it?
That gives you a chance to kind of leap around or whatever?
And presumably, the more you do it, the more practised you are at it and the better you are at judging it?
Yes; once you became….really had the know how, then you made sure you trained your number 2 and let him have a go. He couldn’t just fly and watch all the time. Then he became experienced and so you ended up both being experienced on the same flight but one a bit more experienced than the other, but both capable of doing it, which was brilliant.
And how much information did you have about how the battle was going on the ground?
Quite a bit because we had these army bods briefing us and they put us right in the picture of what was happening. I remember one occasion which I did write down – I came back and said “You know Jack, up in the mountain area, way up over the other side, I came across a landing strip; only a short one but in perfect condition. What is it?” “Don’t know” he said. Later on I asked him if he’d found out anything and he said “Yes I did, and if you hadn’t asked me I wasn’t going to tell you.” I said “Why?” and he said “It’s one we’re using at the moment.” Some of our bods used to drop odd things for the long range desert group; I didn’t myself. We used to drop messages occasionally too.
I bet you were rather glad to be above the Gothic Line rather than in the thick of it?
Oh yes, in that sense. It’s rather funny because at one stage, just to be friendly, we went up the line and went in a tank; frightened the life out of me! I would not have wanted to fight a war in a tank. It took me back to Pennacitva. They had a Harvard and I took an Army major up and it frightened the life out of him. All the time he was saying things like “Have you seen that aircraft over there?” “Yes, it’s alright! Tell you what, I’ll do some aerobatics!” “No, don’t do that!” he said. We came into land and there was a cross wind and it was a bit bumpy. I picked the mike up to say “Sorry about the bumpy landing” but he didn’t give me a chance, he just said “Smashing landing!” he was sp grateful to come back!
Would you ever have a typical day or was every day different?
Every day tended to be different. We might perhaps be doing a dawn sortie and we wouldn’t do, or might nor do, anything else for the rest of the day; it depended. Or perhaps we might do last light, which is the reverse. We had the details put down of the days we were on ops and it was up to us to make sure we were at the briefing on time. You can imagine dawn sorties – an airman would come round and wake us up, say an hour before time and they had to be so careful – they brought in a rule – when the airman came round, he made the bod sign he’d been called. In the winter time, in a warm bed….another couple of minutes…you’ve had it. We used to hear the odd tale of a bod whose kit went on top of his pyjamas.
Would there be daily briefings that you’d all attend?
No, they were individual briefings, held in a caravan.
And would it just be you and the ALO?
Yes and my number 2.
You wouldn’t see the CO or anyone?
Who would decide who was to do what flight?
I suppose in my case, Ken Neill would sort out a programme and decide who flew when and what.
What flight were you on?
I was on B.
So it was fairly systematic; sometimes you’d be directing artillery and sometimes you’d just be taking photographs?
Not all the kites had cameras in so you weren’t always taking photographs. Sometimes it could just be doing normal reconnaissance work, which was reporting back everything you found.
And that was when you were doing your really low level flying?
Yes. On one occasion – it must have been a special do, we went out to look for a couple of 208 squadron who’d disappeared.
Did you find them?
No; there was a story too, not 208 but another squadron, a Spit squadron – they went up the wrong valley and it was a dead end and the leader shouted “Pull up!” and the front 2 went up and over and the second 2 smashed in, because they were behind and down a bit.
I imagine low level flying is pretty exhilarating?
Oh it’s smashing.
Are these clipped wings?
Oh yes, that should be clipped but I’m not sure if they were pendulum clipped (?) or not; it doesn’t look like it but it was clipped.
And the whole squadron was Spits?
And always on Mark 5’s? Or the early 9’s?
That one’s a 9; we changed to a 9. I liked the 5’s, but the 9’s were brilliant. When I first took off in a 9 – I think we had 9’s with Merlin 70’s (?) and they were very good.
So you took lots of photos?
Yes. (Looking at photos)
That’s Maurice, a friend of mine. He died on the course. Timmy Brain (?) – he died on the course. He was flying a Hurricane on official low flying – you’ve got your main tank and you’ve got a 19 gallon gravity feed tank in front of you and that’s used for change over. He forgot to change over and he was low flying and the engine cut. Went straight in…..that was round Tiberius. This was the same time as the army liaison courses. So they were learning….a couple of Yanks; couple of Poles; 3 South Africans; a couple of Egyptians. There’s Villa Cora – still a hotel now. That’s the one we went back to. Think of a 5 star hotel and add a couple. Boy did they welcome us!
Looks like you’ve got a bomb under there.
No, it was a long range tank. The long range tank was used by the Hurricane when they were flying…..that was me…I’ve done a write up of that, if you’d like to read it.
And I got a red for it too.
A red endorsement; in your logbook.
Did you get told off by the CO for that?
Not to any extent; when you think about it…..I felt really that what should have happened was that the duty pilot should have called me up and told me what the situation was. He hadn’t cleared the runway. If he’d cleared the runway, I would have been all right. I really clobbered it but I came away with a slight bruise on the bridge of my nose. I was lucky, but he was lucky too. If he hadn’t got out of the kite, I’d have chopped him. You can see on one of them, the overload fuel tank underneath. There’s Ken – after he bailed out there was some 88 coming up and so I couldn’t hang around and besides, I didn’t want to identify his position too much.
So you were near Aola (?); near La Spezia and landed near Salezano?
That’s right……that’s me as well. I was doing about 80 and I didn’t know what happened – you can imagine, sitting there; tail up and suddenly you veer straight off and as I went off, I bumped over the ground and thought aahh! There’s an irrigation ditch along here somewhere; I better put the undercart up and I did. In fact ? came out to me and said “Crikey, your tyre blew out.” I said “Was that what it was?” I’ve still got a piece of the tyre!
Did you ever have much to do with the Italians?
Not an awful lot, no.
Do you have copies of what you’ve written up?
I’ll give you copies, yes.
What rank were you by the time you got to Italy? Still pilot officer?
Yes, you’re a pilot officer for 6 months and then flying officer and eventually I was flight lieutenant. Do you know, we did all this for about 15 bob a day? I was in charge at Kagaenfuhrt (?) over the winter period of providing all fuel for the whole camp and I had about 30 POW’s and some local Austrian bods; a couple of RAF corporals, ex-Newfoundland and familiar with tree felling and I had some fun. We kept the whole camp in fuel. It was one of these extra things to do because you couldn’t keep on flying all the time.