The Biggs' Boys

(hosted Online by the Justin Museum of Military History)

By Ken Stofer

Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

Biography of Dennis Ashby

Pilot, RAF

         On the outbreak of World War Two, my home was a 100 acre farm owned by W.E. Boeing of Boeing Aircraft, on the Cowichan flats at the mouth of the Cowichan River, north of Victoria, on Vancouver Island.  My dad managed the farm and from there I attended Shawnigan Lake school.

 

          In 1939/40, if you wanted to join the R.C.A.F. and didn't have a degree you couldn't become a pilot.  I guess for some reason or other I had decided that was what I wanted to be.

 

          I heard of Captain Seymour-Biggs through articles in the paper, about other chaps going to join the R.A.F., so I went to see him in his office in Victoria.  I was 17.  I remember him giving me a so-called medical.  He asked me if something was red or green, that sort of thing.

 

          I went to see Bishop Sexton for a letter of recommendation. I got another letter of recommendation from a friend of Dr. Livingstone, a well-known eye specialist with the R.A.F.  who after the war retired to Cowichan Bay, British Columbia. 

 

          I remember buying my ticket for overseas right there in Biggs' office - $187.50, Victoria to Liverpool.  My parents paid for it.  All through the war I had the receipt in my wallet and brought it home.  Mother saw that I had a few pounds in a bank account when I arrived in England.  I heard in later years that my mother went through agony on my departure,  because I was an only child, and just 17 years old at the time. 

 

          I went over in September, 1940.  Nothing significant occurred on the train trip across Canada, however the Atlantic crossing was kind of interesting.  In 1939 there was a movie being shot at the Vancouver airport called 49th Parallel.  I was a witness to it.   Anyway after I got on the Duchess of Athol in Montreal and incidentally, we went out of convoy, it turned out that there were many of the cast of the 49th Parallel on board. They showed us the movie in its uncut form.  There was a scene at Sea Island (Vancouver, B.C.), and I actually saw myself in the crowd.

 

          There were about 40 or 50 RCAF personnel on the ship.  Most of them were from the prairies and the east, so of course we kibitzed back and forth, they teasing me about being west of the Rockies.  They referred to me as an oriental - and I just thought that was great.

 

          I went down in the engine room during the trip - and you could certainly feel the tension down there.  You are away down, and it's "miles" up to the deck.  I passed through air tight doors into the stoke hold...if the ship had been torpedoed they'd really be trapped.    

          We docked at Liverpool.  I wasn't met by an RAF recruiting officer like some of the lads were.  I was strictly on my own.

 

          I don't recollect how I got from the ship at the dock to the railway station, but I must have looked absolutely stunned in the railway station, because this porter came up to me and said, "Where are you going?"  I told him that I was going to London.

 

          "Give me two pounds, leave your bags, I'll get your ticket and you be back here at such and such a time," he said.

 

          I just gave him the money and that could have been the end of it.  I think I had two or three hours to wait and I don't remember now what I did, but when I came back, there he was, with my ticket and the bags. Talk about honest - I mean here was a guy (me), who was obviously as green as grass - he could have taken that money and my bags.

 

         He put me on the train.  I never gave him a tip.  I just thanked him.

 

          I'll never forget my arrival in London.  It was late afternoon when we left Liverpool.  We got to London late at night in the middle of a blitz.  I'm not sure which station it was but it would have been on the northwest side of London and the Thames.  I went down from the railway station into the Underground and here were all these people under blankets, as far as you could see, with their heads to the wall and their feet to the track.  It was there I was accosted by three prostitutes.  Anyway, I got on the tube and because there was a raid on, the train wouldn't go under the river.  I was trying to get to the Union Jack Club near Waterloo Station.  Carrying my two big bags, I had to walk up from the tube on the north side of the river and cross over Waterloo Bridge to get to this club.  The bombs were raining down and some guy came up to me all covered in blood.  He had obviously been hurt from the raids.  I can't remember if I tried to help him or not.   My bags were so heavy that my hands were bleeding by the time I got to the Union Jack Club.  I entered, and because I wasn't yet in the airforce they weren't going to take me.  By now it's about one o'clock in the morning.  I pleaded with them and they let me in.

 

          The next day I made my way to Esher, about 15 miles south of London, where I had an aunt and uncle.  I stayed with them for a few days and then reported to Euston House in London.

 

          I thought I had come to England to get what they called a short term commission in the Royal Air Force.  I was told, "Oh that's all dispensed with now, you better just go down the hall and inquire there.  I remember the selection board sitting behind a table asking me questions.   About the only thing I could say to them that was perhaps impressionable was that I had just turned 18 coming across the Atlantic and I had come at my own expense for the express purpose of being a pilot and if I couldn't be a pilot then I might just as well have stayed at home.  I was fortunate.  They were compassionate.  I was selected as a pilot, and one of very few that day.  I was sent to Cardington, in Bedfordshire where I was issued with my uniform and kit. 

 

          The next morning a Corporal comes running in to the barracks hammering on a garbage can lid yelling, "Wakee, wakee! Rise and shine."  I remember I had to polish the floor that day in spite of the fact it already looked like a mirror.

 

          I did my square-bashing drill at Morecombe, on the west coast, just north of Blackpool.  There seemed to be some stalling going on at this time.  It was wintertime.  I was then sent to Llandow in South Wales.  I was on guard duty there on the aerodrome they were building.  The threat of invasion was very real then.

 

          Later I was posted to Scarborough to I.T.W. (initial training wing) and billeted in the Grand Hotel.  I forget which floor, but God there were about 400 steps to my room and no elevators.  The hotel sat right on the lip of the bank looking on to the beach.  We used to do our calisthenic when the tide was out because we could then get on the beach between the snow and the low tide mark.  I got pleurisy.  I was hospitalized for awhile and that of course interrupted my I.T.W training.  I was sent from there to Paignton where I went through initial training.  After my stint at the I.T.W.  I was sent to an elementary flying school at a place called Woodley, just outside Reading.  I did my elementary flying in a Miles Magister(see photo).  As a matter of interest the factory where they built Miles Magisters and Miles Masters was at Woodley.

 

          It was rather exceptional here.   I was just a lowly AC2 with my white flash (in cap) and yet I had a batman.  Four of us would sit down to eat together to a table with white linen tablecloth, silver, sugar on the table (all rationed in those days), just incredible.

 

           Our flying instructor whom we called Basil Rathbone, because of his likeness to the movie actor, was obviously running a peacetime operation.  Of the 33 of us there training as pilots, six got through.  "Basil" scrubbed all kinds of good guys that I thought would have made excellent pilots.

 

          He was a real nut on spinning.  I knew this so I kind of played this up a bit and that probably helped my cause.  He'd say, "Do you see that house?  I want you to go into a spin and do six spins and come out on that house." 

 

          I had one instructor, I don't recall the incident but I can remember him saying "The road to heaven is paved with too much bottom rudder." - and so we flew out of Woodley.

 

          There were no actual runways - just a nice field.  We did a lot of our flying out of a farmer's field a few miles away. They put up a Nissen hut, and knocked a few fences down to make a T-shaped field.  It was a beautiful summer to learn to fly.  

 

          I passed out of Woodley okay and was posted to South Cerney to # 53 war course on Oxfords and we either operated out of South Cerney itself or a satellite field near Bibury.   It was here that I experienced my first crash.

 

           Once again, the field at that time was a farmer's pasture with some fences removed.  For night flying the flare-path was those coal-oil flares that you used to see on the road before the days of the present day flashing electric devices.  This together with the glide path indicator was all we had.

 

          On this occasion I was up with a Pilot Officer Chance, my instructor, for my first night flying familiarization in an Airspeed Oxford.  My recollection is that there was a light ground mist - anyway, P.O. Chance made a nice approach and did a perfect three-point landing - unfortunately it was on the top of the ground mist, about 50 feet up.  The aircraft fell like a stone and when it hit the wheels were driven through the wings and the back half of the aircraft fell off.  We both unbuckled and walked out through the hole in the back none the worse for wear.  The next night, to restore my confidence I was taken up by the chief flying instructor.

 

          I went back in 1983 and was asking around and they said, "Oh you were probably up there on the hill at Ablington."  I went up and had a nostalgic look around but there was only some concrete here and there and the runways had been torn up.  It had been developed into a more permanent field than when I was there.

 

          I got my wings at South Cerney and was posted to a Hamden bomber O.T.U. at Cottesmore.  We operated out of there and from a satellite at nearby Saltby, near Streatham Oakham. 

 

          It was a very substantial station.  There was a brick Sgts. Mess and a WAAFs' Mess.  I'm sure it is still there to this day.  We worked our way into the winter in pretty grim conditions and I had an interesting experience, one that I fortunately survived. 

 

          It had snowed and all station personnel were called out to clear the runways.  This resulted in piles of snow on each side of the runway.   We had a Rhodesian chap in charge of flying and on this particular day he sent a crew up to do an exercise.  The pilot couldn't get the aircraft up off the ground; it kept swinging to the right all the time.  He made a couple of attempts and couldn't manage it.  The Rhodesian pulls the pilot out and he puts me in, and says: "Ashby, you take it up!"   And I, bloody fool that I was, couldn't refuse.  I managed to get the thing off the ground but it was swinging to the right.  The upshot of the thing was that the controls had been hooked up backwards and the more you tried to correct the swing the worse you made it.  Well, we never got the wheels up and just swung around through the tops of the trees and came around and landed across the runway through the piles of snow.  How we survived I don't know.  I mean the tops of the trees were above us, oh God, and all these other poor guys in the aircraft. 

 

         Not long after that my pleurisy re-occurred and I had to go to the hospital.  I was diagnosed as having T.B. I can't recall just where I was sent at that time but it was some hospital on the northeast coast of England.  I was in there for awhile and then shipped by ambulance down to a place called Papworth,  a T.B. sanitorium in Cambridgeshire.  I spent quite a bit of time there before being repatriated home to Halifax.  It was here that I met one of the early R.A.F. Victoria Cross winners, John Hanna, who was also being treated for T.B.

 

          I came home on the Empress of Scotland.  The skipper was a Captain Thomas (remember that name). I think it was either in February or March 1943.  It was rougher than blazes.  Everybody was sick.  I wasn't and so volunteered to do submarine watch on the bridge, just to get out in the open.

 

          After I had been home for awhile my T.B. broke out again and I went to Shaunessy Hospital.  I ended up in a three-bed ward.  To my surprise, in the ward I met the son of Captain Thomas, skipper of the Empress of Scotland.  He and I became very good friends.   He is now a retired doctor.

 

          I was actually at home in Duncan, B.C., when my discharge from the Royal Air Force came to me by mail.  I was lucky, I came back, but I attribute that to the fact that I got T.B.  I jokingly say to my friends, well T.B. saved my life.  Almost all of those I trained with at O.T.U., were either killed, missing or prisoners of war within the first six months of graduating.

 

          I have spent many years (4 out of 6 at one point) in hospital as a consequence of contracting T.B. while in the service.

----- Dennis Ashby

[Dennis Ashby died in 1991]

Copyright 2007 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

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