Ken Neill – Recorded in Christchurch, New Zealand, February 2003
– How you came to, you know, what your background was and what led you to join the Air Force?
Yes. Firstly, can I ask you what your… You’re writing a history of…
Yeah, I’ll explain that… [Tape stopped/paused]… And what led you to join the Air Force, really.
Well, when starting from, when war broke out?
Right back from year dot.
Well, my background – that’s my Father there, you see – He was born a New Zealander but He joined the New Zealand Militia and went to the South African war and from there, after the South African war, He went to England and joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers which had, which was very traditional, rather. And He was with the 87th at Waterloo and they captured Napoleon’s first eagle. That was the first time Napoleon ever lost an eagle at the battle of (Verossa) and so that was… And then after World War 1, after, no, after my Father retired from the Army in 1913 in 1914, of course, war broke out again so He enlisted with the New Zealand forces and went away to (Salmara) but then He came back again and went back to His regiment then –
The Irish Fusiliers.
To the Irish Fusiliers where He spent the rest of the war. Well, that was my sort of military background and something of a reputation that I had to live up to.
Yes, I’m sure.
And really I thought it was awesome. I didn’t really feel I was quite up to it, actually. When I left school, I was educated in Christchurch, and I went to – We were on a farm which was, when my Father came back he bought a back-country station in New Zealand which was right up the Ashburton Gorge, He called it Verossa. Of course Verossa Day was celebrated by the Regiment as the great day that they captured this eagle and that was the history of Verossa where I was born 40 miles from the nearest doctor and several rivers in between which were more or less unfordable. So I was brought up… The nearest neighbour was about five miles away and there were only a few up this gorge, a few of these big stations, which were anything from 25 to 180,000 acres.
God, that’s big.
Or 200,000 acres, you know, so the idea of a homestead is fairly thinly spread. So I was brought up there and then I went from school I went to another big station down in (Northotigo) up near (Wittaki) where they had six young fellows learning the farming business and that was where I was. And that was also cut off. We only had the paper and the groceries twice a week. And I had a little battery radio and that was my two sources of what was going on in the world. And we lived in a little hut where there was no form of heating, there was no electricity. It was just a candle and a kerosene lamp. And, um, that was really…
But it must have quite exciting, quite an interesting childhood, wasn’t it? All that land and…
Well, yes. But I suppose one didn’t fit the mainstream… We were probably… I suppose school levelled us out a bit. I didn’t go to kindergarten or – I went first to boarding school aged nine.
No, that was actually in (Mid Canterbury), just this little country school, little country boarding school which is quite a well-known school. But, so I did have contact with other humans! Where as at home contact was mostly with ponies and dogs and things.
Yeah. It must have been quite a change for your father having had all those people around him all the time, it was a soldier’s life, you know, even from South Africa then the Great War with all those…
Yes. He’d had three and a half years in the trenches.
It must have been quite a shock to come back and have to lead such a solitary existence bar his wife and children.
Yes, well for my Mother it was more than for him.
Yes, I think for her. She thought she’d married a soldier who was on guard at Buckingham Palace in the south end of London when she found herself buried alive, really.
She was English, was she?
No, no. She was New Zealand.
Born in New Zealand. Spent a bit of time… She was an ambulance driver in the first war and she left London when the whole of her life she wanted to live in London.
Oh, dear. And did you have other brothers and sisters?
Yes, there were five of us. One girl and four boys. We were fairly well spread out. My older brother, there’s a picture of him in the front hall, he went to Sandhurst after he left school and then he went into the Irish Fusiliers too. But he got, uh, TB when he was in Malta and he was invalided out of the Army right at the beginning of the war and he died.
Died of TB during the war. He actually died of complications from something else. But, that was… So, although he was the professional soldier of the family, he never actually went to war and I was supposed to be the farmer and I went to war. But anyway, going back to the station where I was learning farming, when war was declared I was 18 and I could see really that I’m going to have to be in this. I didn’t like the prospect too much. I wasn’t one of those people dying to get into the fray, really. But, um, as far as I could gather from what news we could get you couldn’t join the Army at that stage until you were 21. I think they started off at 21 and probably a few served at 20, but anyway, I was too young to get into the Army. I then contemplated the Air Force. Well, I don’t think I’d ever seen an aeroplane, uh, certainly not one flying. (Kingsford-Smith) had landed here and there was quite a lot of agro through that. I don’t know whether he even got out to see us. He landed at the airport, at (Erwin) here. Anyway, I had read about (Rick Toten) and (Dicky Mack) and…
So you managed to get books and magazines and things?
I’d read those when I was at school. I was always rather fascinated with them and so I decided that the Air Force was something that I could get into, anyway. So, after I turned nineteen – My father had always said, ‘Boys are no use in the Army,’ because they’d sent them to the trenches in World War 1 and my Father said that those who were very young were…
A waste of time.
…That it was a mistake, really. And anyway, I came up and I signed up for the Air Force.
Was your Father happy about that? Was supportive of that, was he?
Oh, yes. He said to me, I rather asked his opinion and he said, ‘I can’t tell you, you’ve got to make your own mind up,’ and um…
You never considered just sort of waiting until you were 21?
You just felt this was what you had to do?
Well, yes, I thought that and also I was pretty un-athletic and we had to work pretty hard where we were. I was driving a team of six horses from 5:30 in the morning until after you turned them out at eight at night.
Six days a week. And the seventh day you still had to feed the horses and groom them and plait their tails and harness them.
It was a hard life.
So I think I thought that sitting down would be a good way go through the war.
Did you think, did you ever, when your father’s had his fair share of experience of war, did you ever consider how long the war might last? Because I know that there are pilots I’ve spoken to who thought it would be nine months training, it would be a laugh, you know, the war might be over by the time I’m qualified.
Yes, I think my Father always said to me that there’s plenty of time, you know. He always used to say that; there’s plenty of time, it won’t be over before you can get into it. But there were times when it looked as though it was going to be over pretty quickly!
Yes, of course. But the wrong way!
So, where did you join?
I came to Christchurch here and I joined up. There was a recruiting place here so I joined. You were supposed to have educational qualifications which was up to university entrance before you could apply to be a pilot. And it’s an indication of how young New Zealanders felt that I had been three months before I got there and I had to wait, after I signed up, I had to wait eighteen months before I could even start training because there were so many in front of me.
So you just went back to the farm and carried on farming?
I went back to my parent’s farm, yes, and carried on farming for another year. And then I got a letter from the Air Ministry to say that if I joined as an (EC) at (Hareward) here, which was just being opened as an Air Force station, then it would help me to get into the flying quicker. So I did that. So I joined it there and I was scrubbing down Tiger Moths and that sort of thing, being on the wing and taking them out.
So, how long after you originally signed up were you..?
Well, that was about thirteen months. That was, uh, I went in in the beginning of January ’41, I actually got into uniform. And I was there for, I think, about three or four months on the telephone exchange and I was runner for the CO who was Air Marshall Sir Robert Clarke-Hall who was one of the first men to ever land an aeroplane on a warship. And he was a remarkable man. I’d met him before when I was a schoolboy because his son was a friend of mine at school.
He had an amazing wit, sort of dry wit, and I used to have to be his runner, take these things around the station. And he used to write these little notes which used to be one of the things I really enjoyed was reading these notes he put on them to various people about how to run their outfits or something. [inaudible with laughter] And I was there for about three months and then I went-
Sorry, was the with the Royal New Zealand Air Force or was that the RAF?
RNZAF, New Zealand Air Force, yeah. But he was, he had come out here to retire and he offered his services the moment war broke out and they gave him the job of starting up this airfield at Hareward which is now Christchurch Airport but in those days it was just an open field. And he was given the job of-
Hareward, H – A – R – E?
H – A – R – E, yeah. And, um, anyway I was there for about three to four months and then I got the call that I could start the training. We went to (Lavinne) which is on the west coast of the north island, about eighty miles north of Wellington or something, which was a ground-training station and we did quite a lot of square-bashing and marching around.
Were you pleased to finally get the nod that you were going to be trained for a pilot?
Was I pleased?
Oh, absolutely, yes.
It was what you always wanted from the moment you signed up?
Oh, from the moment I signed up I was absolutely…
Had to be a pilot.
Yes, I had to be.
And had you thought about fighters or twin engines or four engines or whatever?
Of course, we didn’t have television in those days but we did have, we had, at my parents place we had a radio, which was actually only New Zealand stations, but our neighbours had a short wave radio which could get London and we used to be able to get BBC occasionally. And we knew what was going on and, uh, we’d hear the BBC and, also, if you came to town you could sometimes see films. Mind you, they were pretty out of date by the time they got here in those days. But we knew that the Battle of Britain scene was pretty inspiring and, uh…
And that’s why you wanted to..?
And those fellows were my hero’s and still are. And, um, I shouldn’t think I… I had that dream that one day I would be able to fly a Spitfire.
Well, it is the most beautiful aircraft. It is the most amazing aircraft just to look at regardless of performance.
Yes, yes, yes. Anyway, went to this training, I think it was about six weeks ground training or navigation and theory of flight and those sort of things. And then I went from there to (Toweree) which is just outside (Duneven), the airport at Duneven, and we learned to fly there on Tiger Moths. That was about… On May the 26th 1941 I had my first air experience.
Yeah. That was the air experience – familiarity with cockpit layout, effective control, straight and level flight… In a Tiger Moth.
That must have been a pretty amazing experience, wasn’t it?
Yes, it was. I don’t know… Everything was just so unexpected, really. I never expected this sort of life. I thought I was going to be a farmer not a pilot and I think you just take things as they come when you’re young.
I suppose so.
And you get used to it. And, uh… But of course the first thing is to go solo and then, uh…
Was the flying training done in exactly the same as the RAF lines back in England?
I imagine so.
I mean, it was an entry flying training school…
It was an EFTS, yes, yes. I imagine modelled…
What, about three months to wings and then another three months or so?
Yes, that sort of thing. Yes, I think you could go over that and say that was pretty much… Did EFTS down there and then, um, what did they call the thing? FTS, I think.
Yes, I think that was it…
FTS – Flying Training School which was at (Wickerham) here which is another airport which was… The aerodrome for Christchurch before Hareward was opened was here.
That’s why they’ve got a museum now, is it?
Yes. Yes. The museum. Unfortunately they’ve closed the Air Force station down. But it was… I think the name was given to it by a certain Lady (Wickerham) or something… And they had car races there. You know, those little sports racing car things.
And they used to tear round it. And that was where we did our (eighty), our bounce training.
Right. So you’d already got your wings by then, had you?
No. I went to get my, that was the final stage to get my wings. While we were at Lavinne doing the ground training, up until then, the only things that were in museums were bi-planes and there were old – what were they called? – Wildebeests! Have you ever heard of them?
Yeah, I know. I’ve seen one of those. Unbelievable.
They were (sailable) at Wickerham. I think that was probably one of the reasons why you had to wait so long to get trained because there were no aircraft, there were no instructors and there were so very few that they could only handle a few at a time. But while I was at Lavinne, we were in a classroom and all of a sudden there was a terrific roar and we all rushed out and this was, ahh, a low-wing monoplane, a low-wing monoplane had flown over the base and it went so fast! And we were all, you know, very impressed and we thought, ‘God, we get to fly those things at the next stage!’ And eventually we went off the Tiger Moths and carried on to (Harvards) and I did my ATS on Harvards. And we, um…
And you did your wings test on a Harvard?
We did a couple of wings on a Harvard, yes. It was…
Gosh, that must have been a difference from a Tiger Moth to a Harvard.
Yes, yes. You kept going up these jumps occasionally, you know. You went from a Harvard to a… I went to a Mustang, actually. It took me a long time to make that jump! I got my wings there.
That must have been a good day, wasn’t it? I mean, that’s the focus of all your training, isn’t it?
Yes, yes. Oh, yes, you felt really…
You felt pretty good when you eventually got your wings. And I was also fortunate enough to get commissioned.
How did that… I’ve never quite got to the bottom of how or why some people got commissioned and others didn’t.
I don’t know.
What was the criteria for being a Sergeant Pilot or a Pilot Officer?
I don’t know what the…
You were just earmarked and they said, “Right, we’re going to commission you,” and that’s that.
Uh, I just think I got it through the post. I don’t know why. I don’t know whether… I suppose they just did the best they could and judged the best they could to… I think I’ve got this thing here… Oh, yes. That’s the commission. 27th of September 1941. They trusted me. Yeah. Pilot Officer… Temporary!
And that just appeared through the post?
I don’t think I got that until after the war, actually.
I’m not too sure. I don’t know if it’s got a date on it. Yes, the 27th of September 1941.
So then, presumably, it’s time, you get your commission and you finish your training and…
Have a bit of final leave, they say, “Go on final leave.” And then you get a notice through the mail to report to the ship in Auckland which was a Sterling Castle which was on the Union Castle line that used to run between London and Southampton and Cape Town, I think.
You must have been, I imagine that you must have rather wished you could take a plane and fly over the farm, you know.
Over the farm?
Yeah, that would’ve been fun.
Oh, I think I did. Oh, yes. When we were at Wickerham here, I remember there was the big snowfall in the back country and the Shepherds and people were out snow-raking and I remember flying around there and dipping my wings at these fellows. They were up in the snow, you know, they had to trek out and get the sheep out from the snow.
Would that have been when you were doing sort of, I don’t know, a navigation test?
Officially on a cross-country run.
Yes, but a slight detour.
Yes, sorry, so you report to Auckland…
To the Sterling Castle and it was a 24,000 ton ship and there were boxes on that that would come from Singapore. And this is just before the Japs came into the war and they had been serving there and there were quite a lot of, quite a lot of prisoner’s of war, they could have been prisoner’s of war. They were aliens or something, in the lower decks and, uh… There were these… I made good friends with English, there was one RAF and one RNVR chap that I remember and I made good friends with them. There were some of my, the course that I had been, gone through training on. I was 15 Course and there were some of us on there but only two or three, which was disappointing to me.
I wonder what happened to the others.
Well, a lot of the others went to Singapore and practically straight into the (bay) for the rest of the war. It’s one of these bits of luck that happen to you.
And, again, it was just one of these notes through the post. There was no, as far as you were aware… Someone on high had just made the decision to send you over to Europe?
Yeah, I was just one out of the hat, probably. Well, there were several others that went to Europe but some went in a different ship. And…
So, that must have been about October time?
Yes. Yes. About October. But it was a good, fast ship and we got to Singapore and this and this and this is the sort of thing I did for Sarah, my granddaughter. [pages turning] Well, she did for her study. These planes… That’s how they’re training it… I don’t know what sort of aircraft they are.
They look like Harvards to me
Oh, Harvards, yes.
You look slightly sheepish there. You look slightly sheepish in that picture.
I was probably a bit sheepish, yes. Very sheepish sort of thing. Then we went through the Panama Canal. I don’t know, are you interested in those sort of off duty experiences?
Well, we went to… We’d been sailing for about a couple of weeks which was an eventful and headlong [inaudible] and one morning woke up, dead calm, and we were in Panama harbour and I remember going up on deck and the ship was just surrounded by sharks, these huge sharks. And some of the crew had gone out and were fishing for them and they hauled one in one of these great things…
Yes, quite exciting. They put out a bait for it. And we went with a few others into Panama. We were allowed off the ship and went into Panama City, which was quite an experience for the boy from (Hacker) station!
Yes, I’m sure.
And then we went through…
At that time the whole thing must have seemed like a bit of an adventure.
Oh, terrific, yes. Terrific. Because I was just a back-country boy.
To be paid to see all these amazing parts of the world.
Yes. To see these things that you’d heard of but you never thought you’d ever see. And then we went through the locks and through the Canal and on the other side we refuelled at (Colon) which they call Christobal. I think it’s got a rail line running through the middle and one side is Colon and the other side is Christobal. And we came in there and two, and Englishman and a Scotsman who were Engineers and they’d been on a job there, and they came on board and they came to our table and we had an instant sort of bond with them. And they pulled our legs and I think they thought we were a lot of very naive boys and they were telling us the sorts of things that were going to happen to us when we got to England and what was going on. Anyway, they said, “When you go ashore, we’ll take you ashore because there are night clubs there and they have different hours, one night club to another night club in Christobal to Colon.” And they took us and they showed us around and in these night clubs I was very intrigued with this Spanish dancing, one of my favourite things. I shouldn’t be saying this! Unbelievable! Anyway, we went back and we were supposed to go to Halifax to join a convoy because it was the height of the submarine war and an awful lot of ships were getting lost. And we were supposed to join this convoy and then just after we put out into the Caribbean we got a message to say that we were going to sail alone which was a pretty frightening thought. But the theory was it was really much safer because instead of driving at 24 knots or something you’d have to slow down to thirteen with a convoy. And with the zig-zag thing, you’d be sitting there and all of a sudden a ship would bear over like this and all the furniture would go across.
Were you quite apprehensive about the crossing?
Uh, not… Only at moments. We had boat drill and I remember one horrible moment when we’d done this boat drill all across the Pacific and got a bit casual about it, you know. When the hooters went off you’d kind of drop your things and saunter up on deck. And then after we got through the Canal and we got out and we were on our own going across the Atlantic and we knew we were into submarine water and this hooter went off, boat drill, see? And we didn’t know whether it was real or just another practise. And I went out to go out of my cabin to go up on deck and there was a bulk-proof door, you know, closing. What do they call it? Bulk-head door closed and suddenly you’re faced with steel, I’m down, ‘There’s a submarine out there and I’m trapped in this great monstrous thing!’ It was a horrible, horrible moment. I turned around and rushed the other way and found another way out. But they had closed the doors and had probably told us and I hadn’t listened.
Good lesson, yes.
But anyway, you made it over without much further incident? You made it over to England okay?
Yes, yes. We arrived. We had to do periods on watch, you know, on the ship.
Watching mainly for aircraft, really, because the submarines – it was so rough it was coming over the boughs and we had this huge ship! And then when we got into the Irish Sea –
I wasn’t seasick, no. I might have felt a little bit off for the first couple of days out but after that I didn’t have any problems. But when we got into the Irish Sea, we were going into Liverpool and then it was, the Irish Sea, was absolutely flat-calm, just like glass. And I remember being on watch that night and thinking and watching for a periscope or the track of a torpedo, you know, which was quite something. They must have known, I suppose. We were only travelling at about five or six knots or something like that. And it was…
So you were fully aware of the pacts, of the U-boat pacts?
Oh, we were aware. Very much so. Very much because there were…
Because, as you said, this was the height of the losses in the Atlantic, 1940 to the end of 1941. I mean, the time you were going over was absolutely the worst time.
Yes. Yes, it was.
The supremacy of the U-boats at the time…
Yes, it was. Oh, we were very much aware of that. I don’t know what the percentage or the tonnage was.
I dread to think of those who sailed on those tankers and the whole thing would go up in flames.
Doesn’t bear thinking about, does it?
But anyway, we went into, sailed into the Mersey and I can remember – Oh, I’ll tell you about these fellows, Jack McGow and Tommy Burns! Tommy Burns was the Scotsman and Jack McGow came from Manchester. And they pulled up and Tommy Burns said, “When you come to Scotland you never want to go out on the heather on your own, on the moors, because there’s a terrible creature out there that’ll tear you to bits!” And we all looked suitably impressed. He said, “It’s called ‘The Haggis’!” And one of our blokes said, “We must remember not to do that. It sounds like a thing that we have in New Zealand and it’s a terrible animal and it lives up in the back country and it comes down at night and it takes all the farm animals and it’ll devour you! It’s called ‘The (Dogtucker)’!” You’ve heard of ‘The Dogtucker’?
There was a lot of it going on, that sort of leg-pulling. Anyway, we’re going up the Mersey and it was pretty murky and there was old toilet rolls and all sorts floating down the river.
And this was your first view of the Mother Country.
My first view of the Mother Country and this chap Jack McGow who came from Manchester says, “The quality of Mersey is not strained.” I said, “Nay, it dropeth as a gentle dew!” I think he was amazed that someone from New Zealand could quote Shakespeare!
How funny. Were you looking forward to going to England?
Oh, very much.
Presumably, in those days, it must have still seemed like the Mother Country, did it?
My parent always called it ‘home’. They always talked about ‘home’.
Even though they were New Zealanders.
Oh, yes, they were both born New Zealanders. But, I mean, I think I’d talked about ‘home’ even though I’d never been there, you know?
[Female voice] Oh, yes, we all did. It was ridiculous.
We were extraordinarily… We had to fill in all these forms, you always had to fill in a lot of forms in the services, and they would ask you your nationality and your citizenship. I always put; Nationality – British.
Citizenship – New Zealand.
Yes. We were British. Absolutely British.
[Female voice] Oh, yes.
Actually your father, when your father… He was born in New Zealand but when did your family first move out here?
Well… Back to New Zealand?
[Female voice] In to New Zealand, yes.
Yes. When did your family first arrive?
Oh, I see. Oh, my grandfather arrived, came over in about… I think it was about 1860 or something like that.
Well, he came from Australia but originally from Ireland. He’d been in Australia on the way and, um… He lived in the…
[Female voice] But our families all went back there. My grandfather went to Rugby and Oxford.
Yes. And then, I mean your family, your father was…
Well, he went back to the army, from New Zealand to the British Army and I think if it hadn’t been for the war then I would have gone where I was supposed to go. At one stage I was supposed to go to Wellington College.
Oh, really. Military college, isn’t it.
It was a military college. But then, I think, my older brother took the military side so…
Yeah. But anyway, it must have been exciting to reach England for the first time even if the toilet rolls were spraying against the ship down the Mersey.
Oh, yes. Tremendously exciting. We got on the train down to London…
One thing I was going to say actually, obviously you’ll have that, but if you’d like a transcription of this it would be no… Because when I get back to England, obviously I’ll get them all typed up and I’ll send it over to you…
[Female voice] That would be wonderful, yes.
Well, in the fullness of time you’ll have the book as well.
[Female voice] The whole story, yes.
Anyway, thank you very much. So, yes, sorry… You were talking about a train journey?
Yes, we went down by train to London and we were met there by a Squadron Leader who showed us to the (Strand House) Hotel and, uh…
And, again, London must have seemed like the centre of the world.
Oh, well, yes. Because I’d heard so much from my parents, so much, you know?
From your mother who was such a London-o-phile?
All the places like Piccadilly and Leicester Square and all these… We were brought up with them.
And here they were.
And there were eight of us driving around London that day and they showed us all the things you could see in an hour’s drive and then we went off down to Bournemouth
Lalla typing now
To what was called a PRC – a personnel reception centre in the Metrpole Hotel in Bournemouth. We had to wait there for a posting to an OUT. First of all I think I received – I think I was going to be sent to India but I hadn’t done my OUT – anyway, we all wanted to get on a fighter squadron and fly Spitfires.
Presumably, you’d had no twin engined training?
I would have been very surprised to have been sent to twin engines because I think my navigation marks weren’t good enough and I didn’t want them to be all that good anyway. But it was a shattering blow to discover that the OTU I was sent to was Old Sarum and Lysanders, non-aerobatic……
That’s where I live!
It was a shattering blow but I had to make the best of it. I made some friends there but I was the only New Zealander. I quite enjoyed it I suppose, except for the Lysanders. Flying in England after flying here was quite a challenge because the visibility was so low. The I went on leave from …. And got told to report to Netheravon. We knew that Old Sarum was army co-operation, not fighter command. At that stage the Americans came into the war and there was talk that Armcop were going to get Mustangs, so we did hope that we were going to get onto a decent sort of fighter but then when I got posted to Netheravon that was flying Hectors and towing gliders. A Hector is a big sort of….a biplane, which was another big disappointment and to be towing gliders really wasn’t the thing…..I was there from 26 December until 16 February and then we had another leave…..
What does a young New Zealander do on 2 weeks leave?
It depended if it was a weekend or a longer leave. In London, there were organisations, the New Zealand Forces Club, the Overseas League and another one. They entertained people like us from overseas and there were always shows to go to. I had relations in Yorkshire who were very kind to me and I also had an uncle who had been a doctor in Wimpole Street. He moved up to Edinburgh for the war. He was an old bachelor so I went to visit him one leave and I was able to visit the ones in Yorkshire, Skipton, on the way back. They were farmers…….officially it was 296 squadron when I joined it and it was training but with an eventual second front in mind they were getting this glider business going. It was in its infancy. With the Hectors we towed a small glider called a Hotspur, which carried a pilot, co-pilot and 8 soldiers I think. We had to do exercises around North England landing these gliders into small fields and put on demonstrations for Churchill and the King and Lord Mountbatten. We had to the gliders in formation and it was pretty dicey because they had no brakes, the wheels skidded and I had a great Australian friend…..I was put in charge of the tug flights and he was in charge of the glider flights. He had several hair raising stories. I remember one which was where he had to land in a field and came up over the brow and suddenly being confronted by a whole row of senior officers with gold braid and in the middle of them, a short man puffing a cigar. They all threw themselves flat on their faces except the man with the cigar, who stood there and defied them, but they got out of it. Anyway we were doing that for about 6 months and then I was told I was posted to 225 squadron which was at Thruxton then. Last night I was reading the diary I kept then and when I arrived at Thruxton, no-one had told the person in charge of the posting but the squadron had been moved to Montmerry in Scotland! We had to turn around and ……
There were a few of you were there?
Two of us, myself and a guy called Johnny Hodges. We had to get to Edinburgh, via London. We had some time to fill in and Johnny said to me “Would you like to go to 10 Downing Street?” I thought he meant to look at the outside. We went along and at the end of Downing Street, they wanted to check your identity card and know your business and Johnny said “I want to see Mr Barker, the Prime Minister’s secretary.” And we were allowed to, went up to Number 10, saw another police man and then a door opened and out came Mr Barker and said “Welcome to 10 Downing Street!”
How did he know about Mr Barker?
Johnny Hodges father apparently was a friend of this fellow. Johnny told me….and he was one of these fellows who……he was a bit of a showman….and I’ve read an awful lot about Churchill and by him and there was never a mention of a secretary called Barker so I rather suspect he may have been the Butler! Anyway, he had authority to show us in and we looked around Churchill’s study. There were cabinets full of cigars, Cuban cigars. We were shown the cabinet room and the dining room. It had been bombed. Not many people get into Number 10! We joined the squadron at Macnary and after flying these Hectors we had to go back onto Mustangs.
You must have been quite pleased to join 225?
I was delighted. I wanted a fighter command, but at least I was in a fighter aircraft.
You knew the 225 had fighters before you joined it?
Yes I knew they had Mustangs. When we got there, we did a few conversion flights onto a Miles Master (?) which was a twin seater and then onto the Mustang which was of course a tremendous difference. They were a lot faster than the Spitfire.
They weren’t the P51D’s were they?
They had the Alison engine but…..the British pilots didn’t like them. I don’t think they liked anything but British aircraft. They were distrustful of American or anything else. Word was that if you got into a spin you’d never come out. Well, I took one up to about 25,000 feet and gradually did a bit of stalling and going a bit further in a spin and eventually spun it properly and it certainly did wind up but it came out, but it took time. I think they’d lost one or two pilots who’d got into a spin.
When you were doing your training, did you score quite highly on your assessments as a pilot?
I was scored average as a pilot but I thought I was better than average I think! At the end of the glider thing where we did this valuation exercise, I did get above average. Above average is hard to get because it was a bit more than above average because everyone got average. So you felt pretty proud of yourself if you got above average. I think when I was at ? we used to do this bombing on Lake Ellesmere, dropping smoke bombs into a circle. I think I must have got a few more into the circle than most because I got above average as a bomb aimer and possibly that is why I was sent to an army co-operation squadron rather than a fighter squadron. I didn’t think about it at the time and if I had, I might not have aimed the bombs so well! We were at Macnary only a few weeks, just long enough to convert to the Mustang then we had word that we were going to be sent overseas. We didn’t know where but were told we would have to convert to Hurricanes. Although it had a good name as the Battle of Britain fighter, it was pretty out of date by 1942. It was still a very useful aircraft. So we had to be converted onto Hurricanes – had another leave – travelled to Glasgow to Erlich (?) and I remember having to gather for a briefing in a hall. There was a wing commander Pete Hugo who was in charge of 323 or something which was the fighter wing which was going with us and in came all these ex Battle of Britain pilots, all wings, gongs. Fellows you’d heard of and admired all these years. He gave us a talk and called a role of the squadrons and called them all out and then added, and the co-op…..! Anyway, we went aboard a small ship called the Leinster which used to ply between Bristol and Dublin or Belfast pre-war and was then converted into a hospital ship. Instead of having bunks or hammocks, it had these sort of swinging beds. When we got out to sea, they stayed flat as you rolled, so the wounded would feel more comfortable. All the air forces for the whole of this operation were on board this one little ship, and there were RAF and commonwealth country air forces and also American air force. I remember a bloke I got to know who’d been in the Eagle squadron. He was now back in American uniform now the Americans had come into the war and he used to “These bloody Yanks think they’re going to win the war in 5 minutes!” – a guy with an American accent, in American uniform talking about these bloody Yanks!
I think they did suffer from huge over-confidence.
Oh I am sure they did think it was going to be a piece of cake. We went down the Clyde at night and next morning we woke up and were in this huge convoy. There were ships as far as the horizon and surrounded by corvettes and destroyers.
Was this part of the Torch Landings?
It was. We didn’t know it at the time. We thought we were going round the Horn to Egypt.
Had you been issued with Tropical kit?
Yes, that was a big clue. When we’d been at sea for a few days, there was news over the radio about there being a terrific battle going on at Alamein and we followed that with interest.
Is it possible to check your logbook to see what date you left?
No, it won’t be in my log book. Somewhen in late October 42, or early November. Anyway, our little ship went into Gibraltar while the main convoy carried on through the Straits and landed at Algiers. While we were moored at the pier in Gib we could hear these huge bangs going on through the night. We were told they were depth charges because of enemy submarines. We didn’t realise til after the war I think when that film Silent Enemy came out and it was Commander Crabbe’s…these chariot things and they were sticking limpet mines on the ships. Because of that we were moved out on to the rock and we had billets there for a few days and at night there was a bit of entertainment in Gibraltar, rather similar to Colon, in Spanish. Our Hurricanes were waiting for us……
Did you tend to socialise mainly with your own squadron?
We were the air party. The ground party were on a different ship with the main convoy and they went on to Algiers and they were supposed to establish, secure the airport for us and then we would go in and fly the Hurricanes. But the Hurricanes had been serviced by the army, which caused us to worry because we never trusted anyone except our own. Most of them flew to Algiers but I was one of 4 given the job of escorting 3 DC3’s to Oran, which we did, but by the time we got to Oran, it was too late to go on to Algiers, so we had to spend the night. We landed up in a joinery shop where they made coffins and it was also full of rats! One of the coffins was on top of a table and I spent the night in a coffin because I thought these rats might be nibbling at my ears in the night! But we were soon to discover that there were a lot worse than rats in North Africa! We weren’t allowed to keep a diary but I did write up mostly afterwards some things that happened when I thought about them. I tore a lot of them out though, as I wrote things in my youth that on mature reflection I shouldn’t have. Even now I notice I’ve left things in…….I passed opinions on people…….very often I changed my opinion……we went onto Maison Blanche and did some trips escorting DC3’s up to Philipnor (?)
Were your Hurricanes ok?
Oh yes. Did Bryan Colston show you that book of the reunion?
A chap called Pete Tickner in our squadron, he writes in that, he was one the pilots who flew directly into Algiers from Gibraltar. He tells a fantastic story – first of all they were told to fly in groups of 12, the mid section set off first and 9 astern. Our task was to commence operations from there and to support the invasion which was going on below…..he says that German aircraft were taking off when they arrived at Maison Blanche. But Bryan says that couldn’t have happened because he was in the ground party and there were no German aircraft there. It’s one of those tricks that the memory plays. He says “I was just getting my gear down and looking very keenly at the rapidly approaching runway and was somewhat thrown to see a JU88 taking off. Without hesitation, I opened up to go after him when my engine stopped.” Bryan said this couldn’t have happened. He goes on to say that on their flight they lost pilots who were never seen again. Well, there was nobody missing, they all turned up. The only possibility was that he might have been flying with another squadron that this happened to. I did hear that some had to break away and land short, but there were no pilots lost in that op.
I’ll check the ORB. It’s not foolproof but it’s a fairly accurate record. Maison Blanche was pretty basic was it?
Well, it had been a civilian airport before the war so it had hangars and runways.
Where were you billeted?
I can’t remember too well. I think there were some sort of barracks. I remember going down into the town looking for the hot spots! I really don’t remember that too well. One episode, I don’t know where, but we were wandering around this town looking for something to do and a small boy came up to me and said “Hello, Mr Fly Boy. You want to see Sphinx? You want to see exhibish?” He led us to a place that was a bit like an English pub with a bar and so we had a drink and then went down to a basement where they had a huge sort of boxing ring with a divan bed in the middle of it. In came these naked girls and started performing on it, and it was accompanied by the whoops & yells of the young pilots! The commanding officer of 111 squadron, the top scoring squadron in the Battle of Britain, was Squadron Leader Flesh La Rue. He was bored of the whole proceedings and lent over the rope and stubbed his cigarette out on this girl’s bottom. A huge yell went up and she attacked him with these great long finger nails! An alarm went off and the manager came down and cleared us all out except for Flesh and the Gendarmes were called! I think the thing was have fun today because you don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow.
Were you apprehensive about going overseas? You were going onto something operational and your life might be in danger.
I was very conscious of the fact that this was something big, particularly after it was announced on the ship that we weren’t just going to Egypt. At last after all these years of losing the war, we were now going on the offensive, and we were going to be part of it.
Rather thrilling in a way?
Oh yes. I remember it passing through my mind the first few days in Africa…….”Gentlemen in England now abed will think themselves accursed they were not here…..” and I remember thinking, no, gentlemen in England are darn lucky! After we left Algiers we went up to Bone and caught up with the back of the front. The army was very thin on the ground. They’d got quite close to Tunis and there was a race as to who could build up quickest and that was part of our job to find out how quickly the Germans were building up.
How long were you at Maison Blanche?
About a week or so I think……Gibraltar to Tavrui on 14 November. That would have been about D plus 3.
No I think D Day was the 8th, so it would have been D plus 5.
In that week you were just escorting DC3’s?
Yes. I’ve got Maison Blanche to Djelli, escorting DC3’s….we went from Gib on 14th, on the 15th we went from Tavrui to Maison Blanche and must have got a job that same day Maison Blanche to Djelli escorting DC3’s and on the 19th, Maison Blanche to Bone. So only 5 days. I was supposed to go as number 2 to the CO to do quite a long aerial reconnaissance run and it was doubtful that we’d have enough fuel which was a bit worrying, but luckily it was cancelled. Bone had been a peacetime airfield with runways and hangars and we got visited regularly by the Luftwaffe at night and fairly frequently in the daytime. I think they were mainly 88’s and there might have been a few Dorniers.
Was that the first time you’d been bombed?
Yes. We were billeted at first in a small hotel in the township of Beaune, which was more or less at the end of the harbour and there was a lot of shipping in the harbour and at night the bombers used to drop a stick of bombs, aiming at the shipping. Lying in the hotel at night you could hear boom, boom, boom. Then we got billeted on a farm. We tried to have as few people on the airfield as possible because of the bombing. We had a 15cwt truck to transport us around with a regular driver. It was a 2 storey building and the officers’ mess was on the top and we had a grandstand view, when we weren’t actually on the aerodrome, we could the bombers come, drop the bombs and everything. There’s one episode there that sticks in my mind. I was to do a reconnaissance with a flight commander and I was flying as number 2 then.
Would you usually go out in pairs?
Yes for Tac R’s it was always in pairs and we were in Hurricanes and we did them at 0 feet which was sort of below tree top, often as low as 50 feet from the ground.
Oh yes, except the idea behind it was that you were going too fast to get a gun on you before you’d gone, but it didn’t work out that way. The small arms fire was lethal really, and accounted for a lot of our casualties. On this particular day which I think was my third op over enemy territory, Graham Stewart and I were just sitting in our cockpits ready to go and we started taxi-ing off and got a call saying “You 2 Hurricanes stay where you are. Let the Spitfires take off first.” And we could see these aircraft coming round, a formation of bombers escorted by fighters and they came down to the ground and these Spitfires went round in front of us to the end of the runway and there were bombs coming down, and they’d take off in pairs down the runway. The station commander, who was an ex Battle of Britain commander, he had an office in the hangar and came out and was walking around with his adjutant as though he was at a Sunday school picnic, telling everyone to get under cover. A bomb hit the hangar and a bit of iron shot across the tarmac and sliced off both his legs.
Did you see this happen?
No. I saw the bomb hit the runway but I didn’t actually see that happen. I was too busy shaking!
It must have been terrifying because you couldn’t do anything.
We just had to sit and wait and when the bombers had gone over, some of the aircraft had been flipped over by the blast, the Messersmitts came in behind these fellows taking off and ? explode in a sheet of flame and we were sitting there and when it was over…….
You were lucky….
Busting to get off the ground really. It was more uncomfortable on the ground than in the air. We were sitting ducks. The ones who copped it were the ones taking off. At the time, we thought it was terrible to be stopped from taking off but……
It saved you probably.
My number one, Graham, by the time they’d all gone, he was still sitting there I called him up and he said “For Christ’s sake, get airborne.” Then we went away and did our job.
So you’re sitting in your Hurricane and bombs are raining down, did you feel the blast?
You would if you were close enough, but I don’t remember. I was probably shaking too much.
Generally speaking, would you feel nervous or apprehensive before taking off on a sortie?
Oh, yes at that stage definitely. Later on and as you get more experienced, it’s less. When we went on to ? doing Hurri bombing, we used to sit in the briefing tent waiting for the telephone to ring to give us what the target was and at that stage we used to sit around and play liar dice. It’s a form of poker. You throw the dice and turn them down and hand them onto the next person, saying it’s a pair of Queens or whatever, and that person either believes or disbelieves you. It maybe under call, so you really want to keep the person on your left on good terms so you give him a little bit of latitiude and that was a great time killer. But that was a really nervous time when you felt the tension waiting for this telephone to ring. When the telephone did ring, everyone got up and had a nervous pee, which showed how everyone was feeling.
Those first few weeks were pretty…….
Well, we lost pilots and that was a shock. Even when I was stationed at Algiers, word came through that we’d lost Peter Rodwell who was one of our senior pilots and very well respected. We were very shaken by that…..so soon….. before we’d even managed to get to the front. Then when we got to Tuburg (?) we heard word that they’d sent a party out to bury him and he’d been buried with military…..you know. The next day we had word that his body had been dug up and all the clothes stripped off and the party had to go and bury him again. They never sent the pilots to do the job at that stage as they thought it was bad for morale.
The Arabs had stripped the clothes off?
Yes. We felt bloody angry about that but later on when we saw the sort of conditions they lived in and realised the coldness of the winter, perhaps we were a bit more understanding. Then we moved up to a place called Souk al Aba (?) which was closer to the front and involved less time getting to the front. We had a lot of trouble then because the rains started and one of the big problems was that the runways got bogged, everything got bogged. Army engineers put down netting and then we had trouble with the tail wheels getting stuck in the netting and there were a lot of cork trees in the area and they stripped the cork off and laid the netting down on top of the cork which stopped the runways being boggy but we still had trouble with the tail wheels.
Presumably if it was really bad you just couldn’t fly
There were times yes and with the Hurri bombing when you get to the target and it was under low fog, you’d get fog lying in the low valleys and of course you couldn’t……
So then it was just a question of twiddling your thumbs and playing more liar dice?
When we were waiting for these bombing trips particularly, with Tac R it was so much because there were just 2 of you and usually we seemed to get the message….we weren’t waiting for it…..it was easier, the army would say we want a Tac R done of this particular area but sometimes the bombing targets were quick because they would move. If we had to go and bomb a gun battery or something….well they’d move them pretty quickly. Very often you’d get there only to find they’d been moved. There’s a Hector……that one was taken later on when the weather was fine again…there you can see the air filter to keep the dust out of the intake. This gives you some idea – at Souk al Aba, that was the forward area we’d moved to from Bone and it was in this big valley here and there were several aerodromes of fighter aircraft, about 3 squadrons on each aerodrome and the aerodromes were called after London stations – there was Waterloo and Paddington and so forth. During any free time we had, these hills were where the Arabs lived. The French owned all the good farming land but the Arabs lived in very poor conditions on these hills and we’d go up there to try to get eggs.
They must have been completely bemused about what was going on?
Yes I think so and they didn’t really know which side they were on.
Officers Mess – pretty basic!
That was pretty typical. That’s where we sat and played Liar dice and this tent is dug down about 3’6 or 4 feet and that enabled you to stand up in the tent and gave some protection if there was bombing as you were below ground level, you were safe except from a direct hit, and we spent hours of time waiting in there.
When did you first find out that you were going to be doing Hurri bombing as well?
I think that was known from when we were in Scotland. We had 2 army officers. ALO’s who were regular members of the squadron. They co-ordinated our work with the army. That chap there is the driver of the utility.
Did you get many visits from German aircraft?
Yes we did. I remember the first nights up at Souk al Aba, we were in a tent and we got word that German parachutists were going to be landing and then one or 2 aircraft came over and you could always tell if it was the enemy. They had diesel engines and a different note. We were in this tent, about 4 of us and the other 3 went out to get into a slit trench and I decided rather belatedly that I would go to the trench but before I could, they started dropping these anti – personnel bombs called jumping jacks and they are horrible things. You could them outside the tent thrashing around. They used those quite a lot on us at night.
Can you remember any other particular sorties that you were involved in during that time?
Well, that’s one of the things about keeping a diary. One sortie is very much like another…..
Was your plane ever hit during this time?
Oh yes. I was on a sortie with Bryan, I was flying with him in the early stages really and I flew as his number 2 which I always hated because you were flying at zero level, no idea of where you are, over enemy territory or friendly territory and it is nerve wracking. You don’t know when the flack is going to open up at you. I remember coming round and all of a sudden there was tracer all round the aircraft and I thought we’d been hit and suddenly there was a flash in front of my face and something hit my S crew ??? A canon shell and I thought we’d been jumped from behind by my job as number 2 was to watch for enemy aircraft. You always knew that the one who gets you is the one you didn’t see, so you always had this horrible feeling….on this occasion there was this sudden shower of tracer going everywhere and I didn’t know where it was coming from and I yelled to Bryan “Brake, we’ve been jumped!” and I could see it coming up from the ground. In the meantime I’d had a chunk taken out of my prop. Then old Hurricane was shaking like a …….
Oh yes absolutely shaking. I managed to adjust the revs a bit to minimise it as far as possible…..
Were you given any training as to what to do if things went wrong?
How did you know to adjust the revs?
Well we had training on forced landings and precautionary landings. A forced landing is when you’ve got no engine power and a precautionary one is when you have engine power but you’ve got to land in a very small area and they’re different techniques of flying. One you’re floating and gliding and the other, you’ve got power on and you’re hanging on just above stalling point.
How did you know to adjust the revs?
Oh I think it’s just something you pick up. You’re pretty conscious of your instruments when anything goes wrong. You usually look at your oil pressure and that’s probably the first thing you look at. If you’re high up, you look to see if you’re losing height. Anyway, we got back from that one. Occasionally bullets would go through your wings. One time I came back and there was a hole in the cockpit on this side and a hole in the cockpit on that side – a bullet had gone all the way through. It must have almost gone underneath my arms. I’d had my hand on the stick and it must have almost gone through. I knew there was flack around and I knew it had been hit, but I didn’t know until I got back on the ground that it had gone right through the cockpit.
If you’re flying at zero feet and flying number 2, constantly looking around, looking behind. That must have been incredibly hard. You have to concentrate on everything else as well – not flying into a building or a tree….
I much preferred it when I got promotion and flew number 1 – you know where you are and what you’re coming to. At number 2, you spend most of your time looking behind you.
As number 2, what sort of gap behind are you?
You’re crossing over, weaving. You cross over each other – the number one has to fly like that, so he can see down, and you’re flying like that all the time. Then you’ve both got a chance to see behind you and you’re covering each other.
Bryan mentioned an awful time where you saw these American tanks going one way and soldiers going the other and he thought the soldiers were Germans and he started strafing the Hampshire regiment or something.
Really? That must have been when I was………We had what was given to us as the bomb line. That was given to you before you went off so you knew when you’d got to start looking for flack. Mind you, we got a fair bit of flack from our own side quite often, so it didn’t guarantee you anything. It gave you when it was safe to fire at anything that moved.
You weren’t taking photographs, you were just observing?
On Tac R’s we were just observing. We did have photographic missions to do too and we had RER’s too, which was ranging the long guns, but we didn’t do that a great deal, probably because of the fact that the targets moved. A chap called Ted Marshall, an Australian a little bit older than the rest of us and very conscientious. He was on one of these bombing raids and the target was under fog and they got a message from home saying drop your bombs in open country and return to base which was the regular thing to do, but Ted didn’t want to waste 2 of his good bombs on open country, so he decided he’d bring them home. He miscalculated the extra speed you need to land with an extra 1000lbs. He stalled in from 50 feet or something. How to land a Hurricane the right way – the wrong way. He had a 500lb bomb under each wing. He was also one of the first to get shot down when we got to Bone and he was flying one of these 0 feet things and somehow, and I’ll never know how, he bailed out. From 0 feet, he managed to get up to 1000 feet and bailed out and he got back by swimming a couple of rivers.
After Ted was shot down, he was a bit bruised as you can imagine and they put him in hospital for a day or 2 and he found himself next to a German pilot who’d been shot down over the drome. He got talking to this pilot and asked him what he thought of the Spitfire, and the German said “Oh, the Spitfire is good, very good.” And then he asked “What do you think of the Hurricane?” and he replied “She is bad because she’s dead meat!” (think that’s what he’s saying!).
When did you transfer over to Spits?
After about 6 weeks I think. We’d had a fair number of casualties and they decided that we needed replacement pilots…..
Was this before Christmas?
No, after. We had Christmas at Bone. We were sent back to Constantine. A fascinating place built on a rock by the Carthaginians, a Roman fortress. I think 8 new replacement pilots came in and joined us.
Was morale ok?
I didn’t feel any problems with morale but we did have…..going back to when we left Scotland and we went to that meeting, the only pilots we had who had any operational experience was the second in command who was Squadron Leader Scott and Scotty had earned the DFC in Lysanders in France, in the Blitzkreig. He was the one we were looking to and actually he never flew.
He just packed in.
Yes. He just couldn’t face it.
How long did he stay as CO?
Well, he was there I think until we went back to Constantine. I actually don’t remember him in Africa at all. He was not effective.
Did you feel a bit rudderless?
We had an army officer as our commanding officer…..
Was he the chap who gave you your briefings?
No, the ALO’s did that.
Were they good blokes?
Oh yes, very.
You all mucked in together?
Yes, yes, very good. There were a couple of other fellows, one called Jeavons (??). I didn’t know too much about it because I was only a run of the mill officer then. I wasn’t a flight commander. Those were the ones that those sort of problems went to, and they kept it very quiet if anyone was having trouble. There was another chap who’d had word that his wife was playing up with an American back home and that upset him. He was eventually sent home on compassionate grounds.
You got letters through from home?
Yes. They took about 3 months because they went to England first.
You were ok sleeping in tents?
When we went to Souk al Aba, to begin with we were on the aerodrome, in tents. Another hazard there was that although we had slit trenches dug all over the place, there were a lot of puff adders there. They didn’t like the bombing any more than we did! They’d go shooting across and crawl into a slit trench, and they’d usually get there before you did so you always had to be very careful.
They are quite dangerous aren’t they?
But no-one got bitten?
Not that I’m aware of but there is quite an amazing episode in this thing – have you read it? We were almost all in our 20’s. There was a chap called Neil Wyle and I think he was 28, and he was known as Dad Wyle. This sergeant, he was in one of these bombing raids and went to get into a slit trench and found himself face to face with a snake and he jumped out and ran across the tarmac with the bombs still coming down. Some of the other fellows said “Why did you do that, what about the bombs?” He said “I don’t mind bombs. It’s bloody snakes I don’t like!”
Were you conscious of your bombs hitting the target? Could you see your hits score home?
Yes, we could see our bombs hit. I didn’t do an awful lot of bombing sorties and of the ones I remember, some were more successful than others. But I remember one….we were given this map reference and didn’t know quite what to expect when we got there. I think we thought there would be tanks but all we could see from the air were these little smoke puffs all over the place and we didn’t know what they were but we thought they must be doing something so we bombed them. I think everyone had decided – bomb what you could see and that was all we could see and we had a message back from the army later that we’d broken up a mortar attack and they were delighted. Mortar attacks, I’ve never been in one, but I understand they’re one of the nastiest things.
Was there much strafing to be done?
At the beginning there was a bit but the Germans were incredibly good at camouflage. They tended to move at night. But if we saw….the things we used to try for were the staff cars and motor cyclists. They had those BMW motor cycle and side car. They were despatch riders. Sometimes we would see lorries and we would always go down and see…..but after we’d had a lot of casualties with the low flying and after we’d been to Constantine on the rest period, they stopped the low flying tactics and we would do our exercises at 6,000 feet which meant we were out of the range of the small arms fire which was actually an awful lot better. Why we didn’t do that at the beginning was I think because they wouldn’t be able to pick us up on the radar and in the early stages they had far more fighters than we did. Flying in pairs, we were liable to run into squadrons or even a wing, 30 or 40 aircraft and your chances were practically nil then. After we’d had these casualties, I think our CO had tried to get us escorts and we came back from Constantine and we had escorts for a while, and actually I think we had some before because I remember there were problems with the Spitfires escorting the Hurricanes. The Hurricanes were too slow and they didn’t like it. Giving close escort to Spitfires, it wasn’t a good move because they really weren’t in a position to do anything, so they then changed to the tactics of the fighters wing were notified of the areas we were working in and they would cover that area but do so from about 22,000 feet or something and if we had any problems we could call them. By that stage really I think that Hitler was having trouble in Russia and they were through a lot of the fighters. So three quarters the way through that campaign, we had far fewer problems in that respect.
You must have been thrilled to get on Spitfires weren’t you?
Oh delighted. I rather missed not being able to do the Hurri bombing because you had the feeling more that you were doing something, whereas you were just going out and collecting information….
You didn’t have to fire your guns at all when you were in the Spits?
Oh yes you would. You’d strafe anything you saw. Oh yes.
It was never a problem for you, having to shoot people up? You accepted that as part and parcel of war?
Absolutely. You didn’t think really think of the people, you thought of the enemy and that’s what we were there for. Them today and it might be us tomorrow. I remember an occasion when we had the escorts, we’d been on a mission and we landed and had an escort from a fighter squadron and I didn’t know, but I found myself next to one of the pilots who’d been in the fighter escort. I was having a chat to him about the mission and suddenly looked round and the flack opened up and 4 Fokke Wolfs abreast coming straight across the aerodrome like that and you could see their wings lit up where they were firing. I dived under a Thorneycroft lorry and it was all over in seconds and when I came out, this poor chap was lying there groaning, the one I’d been talking to moments before. The medics turned up and showed us how to put our hands underneath him and lift him onto a stretcher. Put him in the back of the Thorneycroft and the doctor came round and gave him an injection and in about 5 minutes he was dead. In this valley, they were sometimes able to sneak in without warning. They were fast.
Can you remember the end in Africa?
Oh very much so, yes. I can remember being out quite late in the day and seeing flack coming up. It was like a little light floating slowly up. In the day time you wouldn’t see it but towards the end we were asked to do quite a lot of these late missions and the flack seemed to get better and more accurate at that stage.
It must have been a relief though when the news came through?
Yes. It was a very exciting thing though to feel you’d been part of it. Winston Churchill came out and with his sense of history, he spoke to the troops from the amphitheatre at Carthage.
It must have been exciting to see him?
Oh yes, and to hear him speak – there was a terrific sense of history. It was Hannibal had addressed his troops before invading Italy.
Were you in Italy right to the end?
After we’d finished that campaign, we were given a rest period during the invasion of Sicily. We were on the coast at a place called Bufeesha (?) just south of the Gappon peninsula. We were doing R and R there and re-training, taking on a few new pilots and things, so we didn’t take part in the Sicily invasion, but although I didn’t know it at the time, a lot of the people I’d been with in the glider towing in England were involved in that and some of them were killed. It was a ghastly thing. They had American fighter pilots towing British gliders and they got to close to the Royal Navy and the tug pilots who had never been in operations before panicked and dropped the gliders and the gliders landed some 100 feet from the shore and were all drowned and the ground troops came in later and had to wade through the corpses of their own people.
You came in after Sicily?
Yes. After that spell we went in an LST to Syracuse. We were stationed there for a little while and then moved up to Milazzo on the Straits of Messina and covered the landings at Salerno which was a long flight for us. We could cover that with long range tanks. Then we operated out of an aerodrome at……..we moved after covering it from Sicily for a while and then we moved in and had an aerodrome there.
You were in Italy right til the end of the war?
No, I was in Italy then half the squadron was moved to Foggia on the east coast. I was there for a few days and my tour expired after 3 or 4 ops from Foggia and I was sent back to Palestine to an ODU not far from Tel Aviv where I instructed new pilots. Then I got sent to a place called Chelufa in Egypt. I went on a flying instructor’s course there. Just because you knew how to fly didn’t mean you knew how to instruct. I was there for about a month I suppose. Then I went back to Palestine and was there for about 5 months, which was a nice break. We used to go into Tel Aviv which was a nice spot in those days. Went on exercises to Damascus, Beirut, Cyprus and then went back to Italy. I went to Naples as I’d had word that I’d been sent for by the…..
Did you go back to 225?
I didn’t know where I was going to when I left Palestine. When we were waiting in Naples, I ran into someone from 225 and they apparently didn’t know I was there but they got the word that myself and my number 2, my good friend Esky Howie (??) we were there waiting for a posting and so…..
Esky had been in 225 with you before had he?
Yes. He was one of the ones that joined us at Constantine, but he flew as my number 2 for a lot of ops. We had a very good relationship for a very long time. He was a good mate?
Oh yes. He was my understudy in Palestine and we went back to Italy together. 225 then sent for us and at that stage they were in Corsica, waiting for the landings in the south of France. We hitched a lift over there and joined the squadron. I think I flew a couple of sorties as number 2 to a South African who was second in command over Italy and then we covered the landings in the south of France. We went as far north on the ground as Lyons and in the air as far as Dijon. The front moved so quick – our range wasn’t quite long enough to cover it. Anyway, the 2 fronts were about to join at any moment, so we were sent back to Italy and were stationed in Florence. By this time winter was coming on – this was Autumn of 44……..turned tape over ………..well he was for a while but I said it was high time he went as number one and he actually got shot down in France and got back again with the help of a French lady who looked after him.
So you were stationed in Florence?
Yes. This chap Kit Broad (??) and I decided we didn’t like the prospect of living in tents over the winter again and we decided to see if we could find a billet in Florence. We went up the Via Machiavelli was it? Anyway, a big tree-lined avenue and found a beautiful big villa there called Villa Cora and I’ve got pictures here…oh that’s Esky on a captured German bike. There was a sort of race track and I don’t know what the Germans had used it for but Esky used to go hairing round on this bike. That was the last trip I did in North Africa. That was on the island of Pantalerria. They were going to put out this cross of surrender and we had to go and see if they’d put out the cross. We used to get a rest day every now and again at Souk al Aba and we’d love to take the Garry to the beach in the heat of the summer and we used to go to a place called Tobaka. There was a little fishing pier on the beach and a little shed and Ted Marshall, the Aussie, was looking through the cupboards in the shed and found a box of white stuff, and Ted said “That’s gun cotton. Somewhere they’ll be detonators and fuses.” So we found them and we went down to the pier and there were shoals of fish coming round so we tossed them in and these fish came up belly up. Ted said “It might not be sporting, but it’s good fishing!” Later on when we were at the Bofeesha base, we improved on that by getting Italian hand grenades and we’d get a party of anyone not doing anything on the high ground and the fish came swimming up in shoals up the coast line, and the people on the high ground would tell us where to pitch them and we’d charge in and pick them up and we’d feed the whole squadron from a hand grenade.
In Florence, you appropriated the Villa Cora and stayed there?
Florence wasn’t too damaged was it?
No. It was declared an open city which meant it was undefended. They had blown up all the bridges except the Ponte Vecchio. They had the sensitivity to leave that.
And you were doing much the same thing? Flying at 6,000 feet?
Yes, we did it all at 6,000 from then on.
You lived quite well at the Villa Cora did you?
We lived very comfortably. There are some pictures taken in Corsica. Opposite Calvi. The water was so clear, it was beautiful.
When did you get your DFC?
In North Africa.
Was it for something specific?
I got one of the only specific ones I think. It was for a photographic sortie. A mosaic. You have to run at the same height at the same speed on the same course, or the reciprocal of it and you set your camera running and it takes a string of photographs and then you come back and take a string the other way and then they piece them together and they can estimate how deep a wadi is or how high a bank or whatever.
Was it quite a hairy exercise?
Well, I was given quite a lot of credit for it but you’re pretty busy with your instruments and your camera. One of the things they used to say to us was “Keep you head out of the office” – in other words, don’t have a collision with other aircraft in the air but in this job you’ve got to keep your head in the office and so I didn’t worry too much about flack that was going on outside.
Was that in a Spitfire?
No a Hurricane. The irony of it was that the old Hurricane leaked oil and the oil went over the camera and the pictures didn’t come out.
We haven’t talked much about Italy. I still have that picture of you bailing out next door.
Well yes. That was when we were doing pretty regular runs around Bologna, Modena, Parma, over the Po Valley, around the Gothic Line. I was investigating a farm house where there were tracks and things around and we were wondering whether they were made by tanks or normal farm vehicles. I went down and there was a ping and the motor started to run roughly and so I climbed back up and looked at my oil pressure and it was going down pretty steadily so I said to my number 2 “I’m hit, let’s turn for home.” The thing got hotter and hotter and I started to lose power so I had to bail out still 20 miles behind the lines. In the Spitfire there is a little black ball that you pull to jettison your canopy. I tugged and pulled and it didn’t jettison. This meant that to open the hood I had to get down below I think it was 150 miles an hour, something pretty slow, otherwise there’s too much suction and you can’t open the hood. By the time I’d done that, I didn’t have enough flying speed to properly turn over, so to turn over, you start to fall and you come off the seat, and you’re sort of weightless and you can’t reach the stick to do anything about it. You’re like that for a moment and then managed to get to the next stage further which was half way up, sitting on your parachute and when the canopy was back like that, instead of being jettisoned it leaves a piece hanging over like that over the armour plating, so that when I went up like that, the seat of my parachute was caught on that piece of thing and we were vertical looking straight down at the ground. The chap who was flying as my number 2, I’ve been corresponding with him lately and he asked me to describe the event, so I was going through this description and I said after I’d been in that position for an hour and a half, I eventually came free. I pulled the rip cord and the thing jerked like that and I saw the aircraft smash into the ground, at almost the same moment that my parachute opened.
Can you remember moments of panic?
Funnily enough, I think if it had happened to me in earlier times, in earlier sortie, I think I would have been in a terrible panic, but it’s a funny sort of thing, the thing I worried most about was whether I’d pulled the rip cord. The rip cord was in a sort of flat handle there and the thought was could you get your hand round that with your gloves on? When I pulled the rip cord, there was a sigh of relief – I’ve done it! If I hadn’t pulled it, I would never have known!
It was small arms fire that got you?
You had air superiority by that stage?
Yes. There were no fighters – we had pretty well complete air superiority at that stage.
You landed on the right side of the lines?
No, 20 miles behind enemy lines. I cam e crashing down into an olive grove and I was just getting out of my parachute and I was in a bit of a clearing and I saw this youth on the other side. He was probably about 16 or 17. We sort of looked at each other, sizing each other up and I was wondering what I was going to do about him. I was armed and he wasn’t. He said “Tadeski?” and I said “Non, Inglesi,” and he looked relieved and I thought that probably meant that it was alright and all of a sudden we were surrounded by people with tommy guns and sten guns and somebody was in charge and told them to get the parachute down out of the tree. They were resistance fighters. They took me away and I was hidden in the upper storey of a barn, or maybe it was a house – you never knew because they often had the cows on the ground floor of the place they lived in. I was left there and they brought me reports from time to time. Said the Germans were looking at my aircraft and told me that it was thought I’d perished with the plane. It had exploded in a ball of flame so there wouldn’t have been much left of me to find. They probably knew they were in a pretty hostile area anyway but they were satisfied. They asked me if I’d like to stay and join the resistance group or go back. I thought well, I’ve been trained to fight this war in the air not on the ground, so I said I’d opt for going back.
Were you worried about getting caught?
I was yes. I didn’t have a clue what they’d do with you. They were running a much greater risk than I was. They brought a fellow in and said “This chap will be your guide.” So in the morning we started off….
Could he speak any English?
No, but he spoke about as much French as I did. We could converse in French quite well. I was reasonably good at French by that stage. We’d been in French North Africa for some time. We set off on the trek and on the way we picked up 2 other fellows who wanted to get through and it seemed to me that every village we went through, people were coming and peering out of their windows, wanting to see the Pilote Anglais. I had my flying jacket on and I decided I had to get rid of it and then regretted it later on. We travelled all day and then the first night we came to this little mountain village which had stone retainer walls and I could see there were people peeping through blinds and things. Someone came out to talk to the guide and said the Germans had been up there the day before and said they’d picked the children up by their feet and bashed their heads on the walls and there was blood and evidence of it on the walls…..
I am about to go and meet some people who survived that massacre…..
Somebody took us in and in the evening we went to a little stone house. There was a fire going and most of the Italian fellows were short and they were alright -there was no chimney and smoke was just going across like that and going out of the door. I couldn’t breath but we sat by this fire and had some sort of food. Then I was taken to a sort of boarding house and I shared a double bed with this Italian guide Enrico. We got up early the next morning and marched and were getting higher and higher in the mountains and came to a saddle and looked across and there were people there, 20 or 30, all wanting to get across the line and someone said the line is over there and there was a fellow, and I was still carrying my gun at that stage, and I didn’t like the look of some of them – they looked like cut throats and I wasn’t going to get done in for my gun, so I gave it away. There were women and children waiting as well, and someone said the guide would take us, but I’d have to pay. I had my escape kit with so many million lira, so I gladly gave that. There was snow and ice – it was pretty frozen up. We waited til night fall and there was a goat track round the face of the mountain and we set off and after we’d been going for a while, there seemed to be a conference going on in front and we discovered that this guide, the one I’d given the money to, he’d disappeared, so we were on our own. They didn’t know from then on where to go, but felt we must be on the right track so we carried on. It was very icy and you hear the Germans with their guttural voices talking in their machine gun nests. I was pretty certain they’d have a search light. At one point I slipped and just managed to grab a rock and a chap grabbed me by the wrist “Courage mon ami” he said and pulled me up. Then we came to another valley and it was decided we’d stay there til daylight so we spent another cold night huddled together and next morning we made our way forward and came across an American negro division.
The 92nd division.
Was it? Oh…I remember the black sergeant said something to me…..I said something about being in the RAF and he said “Oh smart guy, speaks English eh!” So there must have been quite a few people coming through there, obviously a known route. Then we had to run from house to house down this valley because the Germans were on the other side of the valley and they were shooting across. Got down to the end of the valley and they sorted us out. They left Enrico with me and took the other 2 fellows, I don’t know where. They were pretty unsympathetic the Americans…..
Did you have much to do with the Americans?
Well, one story I haven’t told you…in Casserine, we were called in to go down with the Hurri bombers and help the Americans in Casserine. I didn’t know a thing about it at the time, but we were also working with the Americans at Salerno, working for an American corps. As a squadron we were available to both Americans and British, and to 1st Army in North Africa and 8th Army in Italy and the American 5th Army in Italy. In Casserine they took a pasting.
Why were they unsympathetic when you made it through the lines?
They accepted what I told them I was but they were determined that Enrico was a spy. I said he couldn’t possibly be, but it sowed a seed of doubt in me, because I knew people had been like that before. They gave him a bit of a ……
Unfortunately I’ve got to go…..
They put me on a truck load of German prisoners. I said Look I am a British officer, and I am insulted and they then got me another ride to take me to Florence.
Everyone was jolly pleased to see you no doubt.
The Hotel Majestic there was the place the desert Air Force used to frequent. In the evenings we’d go down there a lot from the Villa Cora and I’d got to know this big South African major and when I walked in, he was there with 2 New Zealand girls funnily enough and he was amazed because he knew I’d been shot down. Apparently they’d been waiting for someone else and one of these girls said “Hello Ken, you’re late!” I said “Well, I’ve been doing my best!” END