The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of T. H. "Ted" Ancell
NCO Armourer, 73 Hurricane Squadron & No. 17 Wellington Squadron Battle of France, Western Desert, Tobruk RAF
I was born in Victoria in 1915. My father was Chief Clerk to the Municipality of North Cowichan.
I had just completed a course at the Fairview High School of Commerce in Vancouver. About this time I was becoming interested in the RAF, mainly due to the publicity they were getting with the threat of a war in Europe. One day my father said he had heard about a Capt. Seymour-Biggs who had something to do with the RAF. I decided to see what this gentleman (Biggs) had to offer. In reply to my letter he sent me some bumph on the RAF and an invitation for my father and myself to see him at his home in Oak Bay.(suburb of Victoria, B.C.).
When we called at Capt. Biggs' home we were met by a very smart little man, precise in manner and speech. He reminded me of a fictional character I had read about, "Capt. Kettle".
My father and Capt. Biggs discovered each had trained on HMS Conway and had gone to sea on the old square-rigged sailing ships. Finally the conversation turned to the RAF and me. Biggs explained a few things and gave me some more material to study at home. I was to let him know my decision in a couple of days. I later wrote to him saying I had decided to join the RAF as a trainee armourer.
I was invited to his house once more. He told me how to get my passport and arranged for me to have a medical. It wasn't long before my passport arrived. Capt. Biggs told me the RAF were expecting me by a certain date and that he had sorted out my transport. He said another chap Alex Effa would be joining me in Boston, Massachusetts. On the 17th of October, 1938 dad drove me down to Victoria where I boarded the 4:30 pm boat for Seattle. While shaking hands with dad I found he had passed me a bottle of Carter's Little Liver Pills. He swore by these for keeping the old system tuned up. In Seattle at 10 pm that night I boarded the train for Chicago travelling in a day coach.
There weren't many people on the train, so I made use of two seats facing each other and with two suit cases between them for further support, I stretched out to sleep.
At Chicago I changed trains for New York. The train pulled into New York Central Station at 6:35 a.m. on the 21st. I took a taxi to the Times Square Hotel where a room had already been booked for me.
I had a little look around, and on Broadway I went to a burlesque show. I think I have a pretty good sense of humour, but I found this show very crude and humourless.
At 11 a.m. on the 22nd of October I departed New York aboard the Cunard ship Laconia. My state room was on `A' Deck. The following day we docked at Boston. Alex Effa came aboard. We had never met before. The Laconia didn't sail for several hours, so Alex and I hired a horse-drawn buggy and had a little tour of the town. We went to see Old Ironsides, an old American wooden war ship.
On the Laconia were three others in our age group, an English girl, Edna Grayham from Westfield in Sussex and an Irish girl, Peggy Condon from Ballyduff in County Waterford. The third was a young German, Gunther Schubert from Berlin. We all got on very well. Gunther told us he was studying international law, but had just received instructions to return to Germany immediately. Sounded ominous to us.
On the afternoon of October 31st we landed at Liverpool parting with our German 'friend'. My Aunt and Uncle were there to meet us and waited while an RAF Officer and a Sgt. Warton took us to 79 Lime St. Here I met an English lad by name of Harvey Coultate. He, Alex and I were asked to do a little test. One question involved English money. Alex and I looked at each other. The sergeant noticed the looks and realized our problem. He passed a piece of paper to us telling us to copy it.
Coultate and his mother asked Alex to their home for the night, and I went off with my Aunt and Uncle. We spent the night in a hotel in New Brighton.
The next morning we recruits met at Lime Street where there were about a dozen men; a couple from Ireland, and the rest from Liverpool and the surrounding area. We walked to Lime Street Railway Station and boarded a train for West Drayton.
I was surprised how ignorant the English lads were of Canada. This showed up by their questions. The general idea it seemed was that Canada was all ice and snow, and as soon as the border was crossed into the USA all was green grass and sunshine.
At West Drayton we had a medical examination, and in groups of about twenty were sworn in and received our numbers. Mine was 625010. Alex got held up for some reason, and was sworn in with the batch of men after my lot. We were each issued with a knife, fork and spoon from then on called 'irons', and had a meal.
A lorry took us to N0. 2 F.T.S. RAF Brize Norton, where some freshly-built huts awaited us at the Carterton Village gate. We were the first square-bashing intake there. Coultate and I were in hut #7. I think Al was in hut 9 or 10. I didn't see much of him except on the drill square.
I think every other hut, or squad had a sergeant in charge, but #7 had a Corporal Williams. I already knew drill on the square, because I had taken it at school and in the militia back home in Duncan. This helped in passing on instructions and organising routines in the hut. As a result Williams and I got on very well together. The lads elected me senior man.
We were issued with two sets of blue uniform, one which was fitted by a tailor for "best" wear. As soon as we had our uniforms and equipment we had to send our civvies home. All except Alex and myself. We had nowhere to send ours. Everyone was confined to camp for six weeks until it was considered we were smart enough to be seen by the public.
One of the boys known as Blackie never seemed to wash. There were murmurings in the hut. I made some excuse to see the Corporal in his room to keep him occupied while the men carried a protesting Blackie to the ablutions, where they gave him a bath, scrubbing him with lavatory brushes. That did the trick, and Blackie took it like a man.
After six weeks we were issued with passes allowing us out from tea time until eleven at night. On Saturdays we had buses take us into Swindon where there were quite a few pubs and dances to go to.
My first Christmas in England was spent while on seven days leave, with an aunt and uncle in London. On Boxing Day I visited Hove near Brighton to see my grandmother whom I had never met.
At the end of course passing out parade my squad was selected as best.
On or about January 7, 1939, Alex and I, with Harvey Coultate, or the "Dook" as Alex called him, were posted to the Armament Training School at RAF Manby in Lincolnshire. We were in #7 course which was to last six months.
There were two other Canadians on our course, Jack Wallace, from Winnipeg, and Gordon Mann, from Toronto. After qualifying as Armourer General I was posted to 73 Hurricane Squadron at RAF Digby, near Lincoln. The squadron's crest was made up of a begging dog, an empty cupboard, and a maple leaf. The reason being the original C.O. in the first world war when the squadron was formed was a Canadian called Hubbard(1)
One morning the gang in the armament section was at the back of the hangar drinking tea and eating wads just delivered by the NAAAFI van. There was no work to do as most of the squadron's equipment had been loaded on lorries a day or so before. We were enjoying the warm sunshine one day (September 3, 1939), when over the tannoy (P.A.system) we hear the announcement that Britain is at war with Germany. Shortly thereafter we found ourselves on a train heading for Southampton. Every window on the train had the front page of that morning's Daily Mirror stuck on it. It was a full page picture of Hitler with the words: WANTED FOR MURDER.
At Southampton we boarded a ship full of army personnel. I remember it was during a big thunderstorm and two barrage balloons were struck by lightning.
Some hours later we arrived at Le Havre. We were transported by French army lorries to a small airfield north of the town. We kipped down in a couple of small hangars. We were to be here for two weeks and under French command for rations. Breakfast consisted of foul black coffee, half a stale roll and a 3/4 inch square of coarse black chocolate. We fared no better at lunch. This consisted of a portion of stale French loaf, a lump of rubber called cheese and a vinegarish red wine. I can't remember the last meal of the day, as six of us decided we'd find our way into Le Havre for some decent food. We scrounged a lift on a French lorry. On the way to town we noticed three French guard posts, each manned by several soldiers. We had egg and chips at the first eating establishment we came across. We looked around the town, had some more food and then carried on drinking until the small hours. When we decided to return to camp our problem was to get past the guard posts.
While walking along the street, wondering which way to go we spotted the C.O.'s staff car. We gave a mighty yell, and the car stopped. The French driver, all grins let us get in. We got three very smart salutes on our way back to camp.
Several days later our own transport arrived. it was driven by Class E Reservists. All old sweats from the First World War. Most of them had been London bus drivers. Soon after they arrived we were on our way to Rouen where we spent the night in, or under the lorries.
Two days later we were sent south to Nantes where we spent the night in a French army barracks. Again we turned around and went back to Le Havre. The French command had us and didn't know what to do with us. Perhaps they were trying to confuse the enemy.
Soon we were on the move again, and ended up just outside Bethue, a coal mining town in Northern France. We stopped here for about five days and had much needed baths at the pit head. It was at this airfield we saw some of our Hurricanes for the first time since leaving England.
One day some of the local villagers told us we were soon moving to Verdun. They were right. The following day we moved off, ending up at Rouvre, a small village between Verdun and Metz. En route we passed through many places my father had told me about including the Canadian memorial at Vimy where he had been wounded in the First World War.
We were billeted in the attic of the schoolhouse. The roof wasn't all that good, quite a few tiles missing. In the centre of the attic was a small stove. The airmen's mess was in a small hall at the back of one of the two cafes. The airfield was about half a mile up the road. All our Hurricanes were there. We were now operational at last. Aircraft patrols went up nearly every day.
The first `kill' was by a New Zealand Flying Officer `Cobber' Kane. We were able to get two of the machine-guns off the Dornier [apparently the one he shot down]. One was damaged, but the other was in perfect working order. It had a very high rate of fire, and must have been very costly to manufacture.
Armour plating was fitted into the cockpit of the Hurricanes. The day Kane's was fitted he took off, and returned reporting a kill. He had been lucky as there were several bullets embedded in the plate protecting his back. Kane was getting plenty of publicity in the British papers. I think his tally was seven enemy aircraft. He was being hailed as a budding ace.
The winter was wicked, bitterly cold. Little or no flying took place. After doing the daily inspection of their machines, the armourers crowded in the armoury tent and huddled around a burning blow torch trying to get warm. The village pump, our only supply of water for washing, froze. We used melted ice and snow instead. At night we wore as much clothing as possible to keep warm. I used to stand up and wrap my blankets around me, then I would fall to the floor where I tried to sleep. We used anything we could find to fill the gaps in the roof, but the attic was still very draughty. We all ached with the cold.
One lunch time three of us were detailed to stay at the field to be photographed. Sergeant pilot `Titch' Payne, myself and another armourer posed, pretending to re-arm a Hurricane. We missed a hot meal through this.
Several weeks later I received a letter from "Dook" who had enclosed a print of the picture out of the magazine Blighty or some such paper. God knows how he recognised me all bundled up.
Once a week we had a liberty wagon to take us into Verdun. Most of the time the lads spent drinking. I got to know a girl, Ida. Ida's English was no better than my French, which was bloody awful. However it is amazing how we were able to communicate. She introduced me to a family who were her friends or cousins. These kind people allowed me to use their bath whenever I wanted.
There were machine-gun posts across the road from the airfield which the armourers manned at night. The French army also had machine-gun posts nearby. These Frenchmen were either pro-German or anti-British. They used to shoot at us (in our general direction) whenever we went to man our posts. The same happened if we made the slightest sound. We lodged numerous complaints about this trigger-happy action by the French. We were finally relieved of this duty.
Next to my sleeping space was an Irishman, Paddy Brady. I lost many nights sleep due to him. He liked his drink a lot, and developed the DT's. In the middle of the night he used to start drilling imaginary grey rats. He would usually end up screaming in fear, shouting that the rats had turned on him. The M.O. used to have him in the sick bay, but as soon as Paddy was released he was at the bottle again.
At Easter I got some leave to Blighty and went to stay with an aunt and uncle in Llandrindrod Wells in Central Wales. At that time petrol was not on tight rationing so they took me on little tours of Wales in their car.
On returning to France from my leave, I was walking to the airfield one dark, misty, morning in early May, 1940. I heard quite a few planes overhead, above the mist. As I neared the field it seemed they were flying around the field. In the early light of dawn, through some gaps in the mist, I saw several bombers flying very low. They had German markings. I hurriedly took over the nearest machine-gun near the operations tent. I fired whenever I could see a German plane. A couple of British Bofors guns, as well as the rest of our defences, opened up on the intruders. Our new C.O. Squadron Leader, `Hank' Moore suddenly appeared beside me. He was shouting, "That's right lad, give them hell." He went to the ops. tent to answer the phone. We had been ordered out. I was on the advance party. We arrived at Champagne airfield. Nearby were some derelict caves, or tunnels, where we slept.
Later the rest of the squadron arrived. They told us the mist lifted and the airfield was bombed. One of the bofors guns and crew had been lost by a direct hit.
We received word that enemy aircraft were approaching. The Hurricanes started up. One flown by a Sgt. pilot got off the ground as well as two French bombers. It was too late for the rest to become airborne. Bombing and straffing started. The two French bombers were shot down, and some of the planes still on the ground, or on their take off run, were either shot up or crashed into bomb craters. The lone Hurricane attacked the enemy. Before he was shot down he had accounted for three German aircraft. The nearby road was full of evacuees, and several times I saw German planes straffing these poor people. We still had most of our Hurricanes, those we had patched up and others which had not been touched.
We left after two nights, and field-hopped south of Paris to Le Mans. The field there was inside the racing circuit. I had received several letters from Ida who had left Verdun. I was unable to write to her as she gave no address. She was now with her mother and making her way across France.
While we were at the airfield inland from St. Nazair, `Cobber' Kane was to fly back to England to marry one of the Windmill (theatre) girls. He took off in his Hurricane and did a couple of shoot-ups and rolls. He attempted another roll and his wing tip hit the ground making the plane cartwheel along the ground. He was dead.
On the 17th of June, 1940 we moved to a field south of St. Nazair. Some of the lads at the rear of our convoy saw Ida at the junction of the St. Nazair road. She asked them if I was alright. That was the last I ever heard of her.
On this field was an assortment of British aircraft. They took off for England in ones and twos after they had filled their tanks. While this was going on, all our ground staff, except 15 of us, went to St. Nazair to get a ship for home. We had heard about the French packing in and about Dunkirk. I had volunteered to be on the rear party. I guess this was why I was mentioned in despatches, as several lads from London told me they had seen my name listed in the Gazette.
The C.O. collected our Pay Books, making sure we had made our wills. He indicated two twin-engine transport in which we were to fly out. He said should anything happen to prevent us from flying out, we should split into groups of twos or threes, and work our way into Spain where we might be able to get an onion boat to Ireland. After wishing us luck he left.
Our Hurricanes went up on patrol. One of them over St. Nazair, and when the pilot returned he reported he had seen a large ship sinking in the harbour. (We later learned that most of our ground staff had been lost on the Lancastria when bombed in St. Nazair harbour). After refuelling, the planes took off for England. We had nothing to do except wreck any transport that was around. We set fire to a mountain of full gasoline tins. Exploding petrol tins were flying all over the place.
Late in the afternoon our pilot told us to climb aboard one of the twin-engine planes. Luckily one of our riggers was checking the machine and found the tail unit was unserviceable. We unloaded the plane, which had some special equipment, and after smashing the equipment we set fire to it and boarded the other plane and took off. Through a small window I could see the Channel Islands below. Soon after that our port engine packed in. We eventually landed, I think at Lydd, where the engine was repaired and the plane was refuelled.
Off we went again finally landing at RAF Church Fenton, near York. We had been so busy we hadn't eaten properly for two days. I don't think, any of us realized that. We were given a good hot meal. While eating we were told we were going on immediate four days leave. As I had nowhere to go at that time, one of the lads asked me to spend my leave at his home, which was just outside Sheffield. Our numbers, ranks and names were taken, and then passes and travel warrants were given us.
I was wearing what was left of my working uniform. A pair of dirty greasy trousers, a torn tunic, a sweater instead of a shirt and tie. I was also wearing a pair of flying boots. We hadn't received any replacements since leaving England. On our return, along with others, we were held by the station police for being improperly dressed. We tried to explain to the sergeant who eventually phoned headquarters. We were all released immediately. We were given billets and told to draw new uniforms as soon as possible.
While waiting for replacement staff, several of us were detailed to instruct a group of Polish airmen. About the only English they knew was YES and NO. So all the instruction on arms maintenance had to be done by demonstration. This went on for two or three days. Our pilots were doing night-flying training.
When the squadron was finally operational we moved south to Castle Camps near RAF Debden in Essex. There was action once more. The start of the Battle of Britain.
One day in November, 1940 the squadron was moved to RAF Debden. Then, one day all of our Hurricanes left. We were issued with khaki drill uniforms, and given some jabs. Rumour had it that we were being sent to Greece. We were given two days leave.
After returning from leave we were put on a train for Gourock not far from Glasgow. We went past a lot of docked ships, and amongst them I saw the Laconia (the ship I had sailed in from New York), with her bridge and `A' Deck blown away.
On board our troopship were a bunch of Canadian engineers. The story was they were hard-rock miners heading for Gibraltar. Our only excitement was shooting some drifting mines in the Bay of Biscay.
When the ship tied up at Gibraltar we were not allowed to show ourselves on deck. In the dark of night, and in complete silence, we transferred to HMS Sheffield. We lived in one of the two hangars of the cruiser. We sailed just before daylight. I take my hat off to the Royal Navy for the good-natured way they coped with a bunch of sea-going greenhorns getting between their feet.
We were on deck after breakfast on the morning of November 27, 1940 and just about to start physical exercises, when the call came for ACTION STATIONS! We were sent below decks. The skipper made the announcement that one of our aircraft had spotted the Italian fleet in strength and that the Sheffield, was leading the attack. A Petty Officer kept giving us progress reports. When the big guns fired, the whole ship shook. I think it all started at about 9 a.m. and ended sometime after 1 p.m. As soon as the ALL CLEAR was announced we were called to mess. The meal was a little later than usual, but excellent. The meal over I went out on deck. I was looking towards the Ark Royal and there were several great plumes of water all around her. The Italians were trying to bomb her. ACTION STATIONS! once more. This lasted about half an hour. The Cruiser Berwick was damaged. No other of our ships had been hit. It was thought that one or two of the Italian ships were hit, but they were quite fast and were able to make Taranto and safety with little or no loss.
The next day we were each presented with a certificate signed by the captain. It stated that we had been on board HMS Sheffield when leading the British line of attack against the Italian fleet during the Battle of Cape Spartavento.
We disembarked, not in Greece, but Alexandria, Egypt. We went straight on to a train which took us to Cairo. At RAF Heliopolis we were assigned to different huts and given a meal and then to bed.
At 5 a.m. the next morning a chap woke me asking for my mug. It was the best cup of tea I have ever had. I have never had any like it before or since.
In my hut were the station cooks and a few members of the M.T. Section. Later that day we were warned about some of the local women who were out to marry any Britisher, in order to get a British passport. With passes issued to us we caught street cars to Cairo and had a look around the city centre, and visited a couple of cabarets.
Several days later I was put on an advance party to go into the Western Desert. We were instructed to leave behind our blue serge uniforms, and any other equipment not required.
It was a dull, cool day when we took off in a transport plane. Sometime later we landed for refuelling. We were able to get out and stretch our legs. There was nothing to see except a small hut, a tent, and a stack of petrol tins. On refuelling, some of the cans were found to contain only water, others a mixture of petrol and water. So chamois leather filters had to be used. This took much longer to fill the tanks.
Finally we took off again and flew straight into a dust storm. We were forced to land because of the dust and it was also getting dark. That night we all kipped on the plane. It was perishing cold. It was a great mistake leaving the other uniforms behind. As soon as daylight came we were on our way again and soon landed at Sidi Henish. The only thing there was a small marquee. We used the marquee to sleep in. There was nothing to do while waiting for the arrival of the rest of the squadron, so we looked around the desert to see what we could find. One chap found an Italian motorcycle. He immediately fell off it fracturing his skull. We never saw him again.
Christmas day came and we spent the day the same as the others, mainly trying to keep warm.
Soon after New Year the rest of the squadron arrived bringing our much needed blue serge uniforms. We soon started operating and rapidly moved from one bit of desert to another. We were now part of General Wavell's 30,000.
While on the move on the coast road we passed thousands of Italian prisoners of war making their way eastward. They were the happiest and friendliest enemy I have ever seen.
After pitching a tent on one ex-Italian airfield we had moved to, I, as usual, went on the scrounge. I spotted a useful piece of canvas where an Italian tent had been. I picked up the canvas and as I was walking back to my tent I saw that both of my legs were covered in something black, that was moving up my legs. It turned out to be a mass of fleas. I stripped off and poured some 100 octane over my clothing and set it on fire. I had a damned good wash, then I went to stores for a fresh shirt, shorts and stockings.
During quiet periods I used to wander quite far from the camps. I found the Western Desert very interesting. Every now and then I came across small patches of lush, green grass with some lovely flowers growing in it. Other things I came across were small remains of ancient ruins, Roman or perhaps Greek. There was plenty of evidence that in the distant past the area had been very fertile.
We had quite a few days at one airstrip just inland from Salum. Here, we were having a pretty quiet time. There were frequent dust storms blown up by the Kamsen winds. This wind is very hot, coming from the Sahara. The dust stuck to our sweaty bodies until it looked as if we were using mud packs. When we went to bed during these storms we would cover ourselves completely to keep the dust out of our eyes, nose, mouth and ears. In the morning we awakened (if we had slept at all), feeling a hell of a weight pressing down on us. We struggled to lift off our blanket which was covered by over an inch of dust and sand. The aircraft had to be cleaned out before we could do the daily inspections.
Here we were also troubled by camels. We were continuously chasing them off the strip. They were great awkward ugly beasts.
One day there was a request for volunteers for flying duties. I volunteered that morning. The C.O. saw me and asked several questions, then said that I seemed a likely candidate. He said he was flying to Egypt the next day and that he would take me to where I was to be interviewed.
This was the 13th of April, 1941, and at mid-day we moved to El Adem. As we arrived we were bombed and staffed. Two were wounded, one sergeant got a piece of shrapnel in his groin. I hope I never have to hear screams like that again. We didn't stop. We went on to an airfield at the top of the cliffs overlooking Tobruk. No flight to Egypt for me. No sooner had we got our Hurricanes into the air, when all hell broke loose. We were being bombed and staffed. There were aircraft falling and diving into the ground all about us. One of the flight commanders, a very popular Canadian, F/Lt. Smith, bailed out. A 109 followed him down shooting at him. He was dead when he came to the ground.
One of my machines landed for re-arming. The mechanic and my assistant armourer scrambled on to a wing while I followed up with belts of ammo. I saw a 109 diving at us with machine guns and cannon firing. I threw myself to the deck. The sergeant pilot was hit in a leg. Both the mechanic and my assistant were hit, and died a few minutes later. The left side of my face was a mess, with small bits of shrapnel from the cannon shells and chips of sand embedded in the flesh. My tin hat had saved my left eye. Two weeks of careful extraction by the medical orderly had me fixed up right as rain. After this raid we had no operational planes left. Tobruk was surrounded. Two, three, and sometimes four times a day the Germans dive-bombed Tobruk. The JU87's usually levelled off only a few feet above us.
We salvaged guns from the u/s Hurricanes and we devised an assortment of mountings for them. With these we shot at the 87's. We could see the incendiary, which we had mixed with ball and AP ammo. hitting these aircraft with little or no effect. Frequently these planes levelled out firing their guns at us.
One day a little river gun boat, the Ladybird sailed into the harbour and anchored. We used to see her firing her guns at the dive bombers. In one raid she was hit and was sinking. Her guns were still firing when the water came over her decks.
The airfield was frequently bombed and staffed. We were shelled a few times, but these may have been strays as most of the shelling seemed to be aimed at the road leading into Tobruk. Sometimes we could hear the enemy gunfire and then 7 to 8 seconds later the shell landed.
There was very little shelter. About two inches of sand covered bed rock. I made my shelter as many others did, by building stone walls and scraping sand up against them. In these we used to sleep.
I often wondered why one day a cheeky German lowered the landing gear of his 109 and touched down. He had come in so suddenly we just stared for a moment. He took off as soon as we started to fire at him. The 109 was hit, but he seemed to get away.
At first there were complaints about our water. It was very salty. But as time went on we became used to it. After three months we were driven into Tobruk proper, where we boarded a small coastal boat. We were taken to a point farther down the coast where we disembarked and were transported once more to Sidi Henish. Replacement aircraft and pilots arrived and the running in and training started again.
Two ground staff crews including myself, were sent by lorry some miles inland to the Qattara Depression. This place is made up of salt beds of dried up old lakes. There were hills all around us cutting off any movement of air. This was during the summer. If hell is hot then this is it. All we did was lie in our tents trying to get cool. When food was placed on our plates it immediately became black with flies, so we buried it. We took our mugs of tea back to our tents and spent some time blowing flies off the rim into the tea to drown them. We didn't drink the tea.
Our squadron moved to Port Said airfield, a wide part of a long sand spit. We were there for a rest. I thought the town was horrible. While we were there the natives were dying, left, right, and centre. Someone told me it was the plague.
I went to Cairo on leave. Two days after returning I was rushed to hospital with malaria. Three and a half weeks later I was back at the unit and sent to a detachment, a spot of sand somewhere south of Cairo. We were supposed to be a part of the defence of Cairo. Our Hurricanes frequently flew with the Egyptian Airforce which also had Hurricanes. One day each of the ground crews had a chance to go up in a Hurricane. The passenger sat in the seat, and the pilot, without his parachute, sat on the passengers knee. It was uncomfortable as hell, but great.
When Crete fell, some people were flown out in that manner. We were here for two or three weeks. Soon after going back to Port Said, the squadron went back into blue uniform.
One day the C.O. sent for me. He told me my father had died. He apologized for not being able to do anything for me.
I woke up in the pitch dark one night, having my face slapped by a torn strip of my tent, and water collected by the canvas, pouring all over me. We were being hit by a sudden storm. We all had our kit saturated. In the morning there were 6 to 9 inches of water all over the ground, but none to drink. The water bowser had gone out to get a fresh supply. It returned the following morning with clean water and the squadron's mail.
Another chap, Charlie Reed and myself, were called to the Adjutant's Office. We were told we had got our tapes (NCO stripes), which were back-dated 18 months, also that we were on immediate posting to No. 17 Wellington Squadron.
We caught the ration wagon which dropped us off at our destination El Daba. We reported to the police tent, and when they heard we were armourers they told us we were needed urgently. Apparently several days previous all the armament NCO's and some of the men were blown up. We were both very shaken by this news. It seemed the accident took place when they were fusing 500 lb. bombs with long delay fuses fitted with anti-removal devices. It was possible for a fuse to become cross-threaded and the natural thing would be to unscrew the fuse, which in this case was fatal. Also, what upset us was that we were both very much out of date regarding bombs and their bits and pieces, not to mention hydraulic turrets. However, Charlie and I soon became confident in handling all this new equipment. The armourers, although very short-handed were coping with that night's bomb load.
Another thing that stands out in my memory of El Daba was while in bed and turning over, there was a sensation of something going pop, as if I was squashing bladder sea weed. In the morning I found my back covered in blood. The place was infested with bed bugs. It seemed nothing could be done about these creatures as we had to sleep on the ground. In hotels in Egypt, the legs of the beds stood in small tins of paraffin. We were advised not to sit on the bed with our feet on the floor, also not to allow any of the bedding to touch the floor as the bed bugs might find their way into the bed.
Wherever we went in the desert, one thing that bothered me ever since finding a couple of them in bed with me, were scorpions. They sought warmth, sometimes in boots or shoes. It was wise to shake any piece of clothing before putting it on.
On the squadron we had some Palestinian armourers. The gang working on the bomb dump were also Palestinian. These days they are known as Israelis. The Palestinian corporal in charge of the bomb dump, was an old sweat who had fought in the British Army in the First World War. His name was Jacob Abtakman, known as Jock. He was very stockily built, with a weather-worn face and a very deep gruff voice. He was as strong as an ox.
The squadron moved a couple of times and then back to the Delta, to RAF Ismailia. It was at Ismailia that Winston Churchill visited us. Here we were in proper barracks. I made a small room in the armoury my own, and made myself permanent duty armourer. I built myself a bed. All was nice and cozy.
The Wimpys (Wellington bombers) were on the old mail run as we called it when the target was Benghazi. One afternoon I was lying on my bed when a Flying Officer came in asking if I could fix his revolver. He looked very familiar. Then it dawned on me. I had gone to school with him in Duncan. He was Rowland Fawcett.(later earned the DFC and killed in action in Europe). We had a little chat while I fixed his revolver and gave him fresh ammo.
The order came that every aircraft was to be made operational. One Wellington had been forced down a few miles southwest of Alexandria. A party of us with a Flying Officer whom we called Tex, (he was from Texas of course), went to see what we could salvage. When we saw the plane, most of the fabric had been shot and blown away from the fuselage. A large part of one of the main planes was missing, also a part of the tail. The engines checked out okay, as well as the cables from the control column. Tex decided to have a go at getting her into the air. He climbed aboard and started the engines. Then with us holding the machine back by hanging on to ropes which were looped around the tail he revved up the engines, then gave us a signal. We released the ropes, and the Wimpy became airborne. He flew it back to base. Many who claim to know about these things, said a machine in that condition would never fly.
All of our aircraft were operational in time for the start of the big push which began at El Alamain. We soon moved back into the desert. One airfield we operated from was an old location which we had vacated some months previously. The bomb dump was still there. We had to take care as the enemy had primed and booby-trapped several bombs.
We had to destroy all of this stock of bombs as they were highly dangerous. The explosive was decomposing, oozing out and forming crystals.
The squadron had a group of ACHS (aircraft hands) who were trained as ground gunners for the airfield defence. Later they became part of the RAF Regiment. An officer had been sent to take charge of them. He was getting on in years and had only one eye. He too was an old sweat from WW I. He was an out-an-out enthusiast. He told his men he was going to see if he could have them taught to use parachutes. Then perhaps they could be dropped behind the enemy lines to do some nasty work. His men were devastated. However the C.O. when asked for permission told him they were wanted for airfield defence.
We moved to Kairouan, a holy city. We pitched our tents amongst olive trees on the side of a hill. While we were unloading, a lad asked if anyone had lost a fountain pen. He bent down to pick it up. It exploded in his hands (booby-trapped) in front of his face. He died soon after.
We bombed targets in Yugoslavia and Italy. Ground staff were sometimes allowed to go on ops. I went on one as a front gunner. The target was oil installations in Yugoslavia. It was the most boring, uncomfortable eleven hours flying I have ever had.
Kairouan was extremely hot. When servicing the planes in the morning I used to take a four gallon jerry can of water out with me. Most of the water was drunk before midday. The afternoon was a repeat. Each time I took a swig of water it poured out in sweat. Working in the gun turrets was like being in a furnace. Normally we didn't wear shirts. But when working in the turrets we had our shirts on to avoid burns when touching any metal parts. The shirts used to get stiff with salt.
There was an American unit nearby. We were invited to go over on Thursdays where they had a boxing ring and of course a boxing tournament. By the time these meetings ceased I think the honours were just about even.
We had two Yanks join us for several weeks. We were to drop American mines and these two men had to fuse them. They were both railway men in civvy street. One was from Montana and the other from Kansas.
In early June, 1943, we saw hundreds of DC transport planes fly over towards the sea. It appears they were loaded with paratroops heading for Pantellaria.
The armourers were called together one day by the Armament Officer. He told us that there was a B.E.M for one of us. We were asked to nominate one man. It was naturally agreed that Jock (Jacob Abtakman), should have the honour. We were given a chance of three days leave in Tunis. About the only thing of interest to do was to take a gharry ride to the ancient ruins of Carthage.
The squadron eventually moved further up, leaving the 8th Army, and supposedly to come under the First Army for rationing. Something had gone wrong. We weren't getting any rations at all. All we had to eat were biscuits, peanuts, and fresh dates. The dates were full of maggots.
I forget how long this lasted, as four of us fell nicely on our feet.(got a break). Across the road from the airfield was a large American supply depot, and by chance we ran into our two Yanks. We were given comfortable beds with sheets, in a bungalow. We ate with the Yanks, real beef steaks, with all the trimmings followed by fruit and real cream. We were with them for more than a week. Then the squadron moved.
We went to Bezerta where we boarded a Yank LST for Taranto. The food on board was very good and as much as we could eat. It was made up of a mixture of British and American rations. The LST had been diverted from going to England, to take us to Italy, and they had surplus rations. It was raining heavily when we arrived at Taranto. We climbed aboard our lorries which had no covers, and headed north. We ended up in a soggy field of long grass. It was a miserable wet journey, and a miserable stop which lasted about a week. We thought we would never be dry again. We then set off for Fogia where our aircraft were waiting for us. On the same field were many Liberators and Fortresses. These Americans never seemed to have any time off while the weather was good. It was a very sad, sorry sight to see on their return from an operation, the "meat" wagons collecting the casualties from the various aircraft.
Winter came with a vengeance. We had freezing winds and some snow. At first we kept our tents warm by burning coal which was tossed to us by the engine crews of the trains which passed nearby. However this was stopped. We then burned old sump oil. A drum of this oil was placed on a stand with a pipe or trough leading out, allowing the oil to drip on to a heated steel plate in another steel drum, thus the oil was ignited. We used steel flare cases as stove pipes leading down the length of the tent and out. It was a very noisy form of heating. It sounded just like a steam engine in the tent.
Finally my overseas tour was up. I had been in the Middle East for roughly four years. A tour for married men was three years. Four of us were sent to a transit camp on the outskirts of Naples. This was in March, 1944, just after Mt. Vesuvius had erupted. We were billeted in a college building up a steep hill between Naples and Vesuvius. Here I met a bunch of old mates from 73 Squadron. We didn't stray far, in fact we were warned not to go into Naples.
I was looking around one day, when I met up with a couple of RCAF boys. Soon as they heard I was a Canadian they insisted I go with them to some establishment for Canadians where a chap behind a counter began to stack cartons of cigarettes, chocolate bars, soap, toothpaste and all sorts of stuff. They said it was all for me. I struggled back to camp and shared the goods with my mates things we hadn't seen for years, and they were gratefully appreciated.
One morning when looking down into Naples Bay we saw our ship sail in. There were beaming faces all around. At parade the next morning, eighty names, all armourers, were called out, including mine. Amongst them were most of my mates. We were told we were being held back for a special commitment. All the other men left the camp to join the ship and with moist eyes we watched them sail for England.
We were having a very idle time, when one day some of us were taken to a large shed in Sorrento where we were each put in charge of four Italians who were to assemble lorry chassis. When built I tested these vehicles. This lasted for about ten days. Then back to Naples. We were told we were going to South East Asia.
Among those who were heading back to England were armourers the same ranks as us, but with only 12 to 18 months overseas. There was no C.O., no padre or anyone we could turn to. We had the impression that the people in authority, who were conspicuous by their absence, knew a mistake had been made and hadn't the guts to face us.
We became a very close-knit group, a brotherhood, and I'm sorry to say our feelings were very Bolshie. That night we all met in the canteen drinking raw vermouth, all there was to drink. As things became a bit hazy, I went for a long walk. When I returned to my bed about 4 a.m. several men were getting up. They told me we were leaving at 7 a.m. I found that some of the lads had packed my kit for me.
Soon we were on the train for Bari, sitting on wooden seats facing each other, with no room for our legs. We were thankful to reach Bari. However, here we changed to a couple of box cars on a freight train. Cattle would be treated better. They would have at least had some hay or straw. To put it mildly, feelings were getting stronger and stronger. One wrong word would have set off a riot.
We arrived at Taranto very hungry and feeling really mean. Here, we were taken to a transit camp. It was more like a P.O.W. compound, surrounded by a high steel and wire fence. As soon as any officer appeared there was a call for an explanation, but they immediately turned their backs. Finally a Squadron Leader appeared, and was subjected to a few cat-calls. We quietened down. He told us he wasn't going to allow mutiny in his camp, also that he was unable to do anything for us. In the background were quite a few Military and RAF Police, so they were expecting trouble.
In the morning we boarded a troopship. I saw a very homely sight. The Princess Joan, a CPR ship I had sailed on many times at home in my civvy days, between Victoria and Vancouver.
We were taken to a transit camp on the outskirts of Alexandria. An officer appeared saying he had been told about us, and had been instructed to treat us with kid gloves. He said we would have no duties and would be given 24 hour passes as long as we attended the 8 a.m. parades.
Two of us were in Alexandria walking past a long brick wall which hid a football field. Suddenly sticks, stones and half bricks started falling about us, accompanied by a lot of shouting. It seemed as if half the population of Alexandria was after us. We made off like a couple of scalded cats. A taxi caught up with us with its doors open wide, the driver calling "Get in George, get in George, get in quick!" (In Egypt the British were called George, after the King). We did. The driver had no idea what it was all about. He called them bloody fools. We never did find out what the trouble was. The driver took us on to the Fleet Club.
From Alex. we went to a transit camp in Suez. We were paraded and the C.O., an Australian Flight Lieutenant, told us he understood our problem, and said he was prepared to do what he could for us. We were each given a form to fill in, applying for an interview with him, giving our reasons for the request. After several days he returned and said a sergeant at Base Personnel hadn't carried out his orders properly. We were to be distributed as soon as possible to local RAF units, and, as replacements were found for us, we would be put on the boat list.
I had a desert sore develop on my left knee, and I reported sick. The M.O. prescribed treatment and excused duties. The camp Warrant Officer got in a bit of a huff when I reported to him that I couldn't do guard commander duties that night. This was repeated several days until I was put on M and D. He positively gloated when he heard the news. That night I was guard commander. I had posted the guards and arranged with the cookhouse for a supply of tea and food. I sat in the guardroom checking my list of duties. My knee felt a bit uncomfortable. I looked at it and it was quite swollen. About 1 a.m. it was hurting so much that I limped to the Police tent and told them my problem. One of them relieved me of my duties, the Orderly Officer having been informed. Then I was taken to the sick bay where I was confined to bed for four days.
After several weeks, two of us were sent to RAF Abukir on the edge of the Great Bitter Lake. I was put in charge of technical stores of a machine shop. All I had to do was to check the inventory of the stores. There was one item on the list I couldn't find. The only place I had ever seen one was at Manby. To keep the records straight I got a piece of mild steel, and using a lathe and a milling machine I produced a nice little instrument for God knows what. I stamped it with my AID stamp, and then the inventory was complete.
I was becoming bored rigid. I went sick complaining about headaches behind my eyes. After my third visit to the M.O. he arranged for me to see an Army eye doctor, who said he couldn't find anything wrong, and suggested I should be sent to the RAF eye hospital in Cairo. There they found nothing, except that I might need glasses in the near future. Strangely, as soon as I left that hospital my headache left. I decided to make the most of my opportunity and booked myself into a hotel. I then mooched about and ran into an old pal who used to be on 73 Squadron. We went on the rounds of the cabarets and bars. We did the same the next day. At one very nice bar we bumped into an officer who used to be Gunnery Officer on 70 Squadron. The three of us had more drinks and a meal. While eating I overheard a couple of soldiers mention a new boat list. I made my excuses and made my way back to Abukir.
On booking at the main gate I was told I was on the boat list and was to get myself cleared from different sections immediately as I was to leave at 10 a.m. the next morning. At the stores, there on the other side of the counter, was one of the lads from the old square-bashing days in N0. 7 Squad. He gave me a few extra useful items like shirts and pullovers.
The following morning, Alan, the other armourer and myself were taken to Suez where we boarded a troopship. All eighty of the Bolshie brotherhood were together and finally on the boat heading for England.
Nothing of interest seemed to happen until we reached the Bay of Biscay where we encountered a big storm. There were some utility aircraft carriers sailing with us. It must have been hell on board them. They were being pitched and tossed all over the place with huge waves breaking right over them, and then the ship would shoot out of the water like a champagne cork out of its bottle. The storm was with us all the way into the Irish Sea. We were unable to dock at Liverpool. So we sheltered by the Isle of Man. The sea calmed a bit and we steamed into Liverpool only to find our way was barred by some American landing craft. The ship reversed out into the Irish Sea once more. Some of the lads broke down and cried. Everything seemed to be against us getting home.
The next day we docked and were taken to RAF Cosford near Wolverhampton, where we kipped in an empty hangar. The following day we got six weeks leave. I went to Llandrindod Wells where my aunt was living. I had a nice room at the Manor Hotel where they thoroughly spoiled me. We had a good Christmas and New Year(44/45). My aunt and I went to Birmingham to look at her house which had been damaged during bombing raids. It wasn't too bad, and a large amount of her bits and pieces were alright.
My leave was just about up, when in the mail one morning I received my posting to RAF Tain. I went to the local RTO for my travel warrant.
The train from Llandrindod took me to Shrewsbury, where I caught another train for Scotland. There were no seats available, so I had to sit on my kit bag in the corridor. I didn't get a seat until sometime after we had passed the Glasgow area. All the windows were blacked out. There wasn't much to see anyway, as most of the journey was at night.
I learned Tain was in Ross Shire in Northern Scotland. Two of us got off at Tain, a WAAF and myself. I asked the ticket collector how far the RAF Station was. He said it was about six miles. He allowed me to use the phone, and I was told there was no transport for me, but the van collecting the RAF mail would arrive shortly to pick up the WAAF. I would have to make my own way. The van arrived, driven by another WAAF who picked up the mail and the WAAF. The driver said she wasn't allowed to take me, but she finally did, and dropped me off a few yards outside the camp.
I had just booked in and was being told where to find my hut, when I heard a mighty shout from four Corporals. They were four of my old mates, all members of the brotherhood. There were a few pints of beer drunk in the Corporals Mess that night.
In the morning I was given a job at the ammo dump which was across the large airfield. I was issued with a storm suit. It was very cold and the storm suit was very good except when walking to the ammo dump, it made me sweat a great deal. We worked in small unheated tin sheds, modifying fuses and rockets.
After several weeks of wet conditions here and sometimes working in the cold with soaking clothing I started to get rheumatic pains. Other men had the same problem. We were taken off that job. I was put in charge of the armoury as acting sergeant, unpaid.
We enjoyed ourselves. Five of us sometimes cycled to the Royal Navy base at Invergordon to have a few drinks with some navy lads we had come to know.
One evening I was at the Tain Hotel where I had become friends with the landlord and his family. The pub had closed for the night and several local people and myself had been invited into the private quarters for more drinks. Someone suggested we all go to the club. We climbed on to a small truck and went to the local golf club. I had never been there before and each person I met insisted I have a drink. I remember collecting my bike at the hotel and riding along a narrow gravel track which was a short cut to camp. By the light of the moon I was able to dodge the many potholes except one. I picked myself up and carried on back to camp. When I finally got to my hut and was getting into bed, some of the men saw my face was covered in blood. When they cleaned me up there was a big gash from the corner of my eye almost to my temple.
In the morning the M.O. debated with himself whether to put me on a charge or not. He decided not. When I arrived at the armoury my officer played merry hell with me. It seemed some top brass were to inspect us, and he didn't want me to be seen in my "wounded" condition. He decided I should go on a tour checking the pyrotechnics stored in small wooden cupboards, which were placed around the large airfield. This was a job which took quite a few hours.
One night two huts were burned down. An airman was arrested and charged with arson. He was one of the lads who had been in my square-bashing squad at Brize Norton. When we had passed out there, we enjoyed a few drinks in the canteen. He had been found wandering amongst the lights of the flare path while aircraft were using the runway doing circuits and bumps. He said he had wanted to see the pretty lights.(mental problems)
In the spring I was posted to Kirkham on an instructor's course. When everyone had arrived I found most of those on the course were old mates from the brotherhood. As usual we had a good binge that night.
Details of demob. were being published in the newspapers at that time. We were all soon to be released. The officer in charge of our course agreed it seemed silly, but asked us to go through the motions of completing our course. We had a fear that if we improved our qualifications it would increase the chance of us being transferred to the Fleet Air Arm. This was based on a rumour going around the station at that time. The course finished and we all passed with flying colours.
While there one day, as I was walking to a table in the dining hall, a corporal stood up and called my name. It was Gordon Mann, one of the Canadians who was at Manby with me. He said he had heard I had been killed during the evacuation of France. We didn't have a chance to say any more as he had to leave immediately on a posting.
From Kirkham I was posted to Warboys, near St. Ives in Huntingdonshire. I went straight to sick quarters where I asked the sergeant orderly if I could have something in which to bath my left eye. The last few days at Kirkham I was being treated for conjunctivitis. The sergeant obliged, and while I was bathing my eye the M.O. walked in. He demanded to know what was going on. The sergeant told him. The M.O. told me off for asking for unauthorized medical treatment. Then he told off the poor sergeant for giving it. He then had a look at my eye and told me I wasn't going anywhere except to bed.
I was taken into a nice little six-bed ward and told to get into one of the beds. I was kept in bed for four or five days. I wasn't allowed to leave sick quarters for two weeks. I didn't mind as I was living the life of Riley. I was lying in bed listening to a radio and had my eyes closed when I heard a soft feminine voice say hello. There was a beautiful creature looking down at me. She asked me if I would like some strawberries with cream. Quite a large dish was given to me. While I ate she asked me if I wanted to order my midday and evening meals from the NAAFI Club or not. Looking at her I couldn't refuse. There was a fair choice of food and very nicely prepared. When I was allowed to visit the club it took my breath away. I had never seen such luxury at an RAF Station.
When I returned to duty at the armoury I found there were no aircraft. There was no work. All the lads were playing cards, or lying around reading. We were all thoroughly cheesed off.
One week I went into London and ran into one of my Palestinian armourers, Peter Siegal. He now had a commission and was a pilot in coastal command.
In September I was called to the Orderly Room and received some demob. documents after answering some questions. On October 11th I was sent once more to Kirkham. The place had changed completely. I was kitted out with civvies and given more documents and advised what to do.
I went to Birmingham where my aunt lived. I have lived in the Birmingham area ever since.
(Back in civvy street, Ted worked in Birmingham as Technical/Draughtsman for a big machine tools manufacturers, Cincinati Milacron, headquarters of all UK and European subsidiaries of a large American organization.)
----- Ted Ancell
Copyright 2005 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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