The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005, 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Alexander Effa
Flt. Lt., Pilot No. 5 Bomb Group, Flt Sgt #1 BDU, Armourer, Battle of France, RAF
In my early twenties in 1938 I worked in Victoria, B.C., as a longshoreman. My salary was perhaps as good as anything in Victoria at the time, but having left high school in Saskatchewan after Grade 11 and having no opportunity to travel or progress, I felt a need to get with it. I wanted to do something more interesting. I had read, or heard of several Victoria boys, Southall and Woodward in particular, who had gone to join the R.A.F. I had a yen for flying from away back, so I went to see this unofficial recruiting type, Capt. Henry Seymour-Biggs at his home.
I remember his parrot with a language of its own and it would not shut up until we said, "Good night old boy." It was at the Captain's residence where I met Ted Ancell who lived in Duncan, B.C. I don't remember much about our discussion with Capt. Biggs except that he was most encouraging and informative.
I sold my almost-new 1937 ford V8 giving me sufficient funds to travel via rail to Montreal-Boston. It was a super trip in mid-October, 1938. I still remember the beautiful maples. After two days in Boston I boarded the Cunard Liner Laconia which had docked there from New York.
Ted Ancell had traveled to New York and was on board when the vessel arrived at Boston. We were the only two idiots on board slated for the R.A.F. We traveled Tourist Class. It was a super trip and we had a hell of a time. It must have been fun because I remember 1st Class passengers joining us at night and wishing they were with us the whole trip. Perhaps one of the more interesting characters we met was a so-called German political student. (Nazi spy). His last words to us when we parted at Liverpool, "Don't drop any bombs on us." Ted and I arrived in Liverpool late October, 1938. We were met on board by an R.A.F. sergeant from the local recruiting office. At the recruiting office we met several other types - locals who were enlisting. It was a Friday. I was invited to spend the week-end with the family of a lad who lived at Southport. Nice place and good people. Monday we were back at the recruiting office where we were given rail tickets and directions to travel to Uxbridge. At Uxbridge we became sprogs (raw recruits) in the R.A.F. Nov. 1, 1938. Then we were posted to Brize Norton for boot training, foot-slogging, square bashing; it had many names. A dull monotonous performance. I was not impressed with the types we met in the R.A.F. There was one other Canuck besides Ted and I. He had a little money and "bought out" of the service, I believe it cost him 20 pounds.
Our square-bashing (boot training the Yanks called it) was a two-month affair. It was here we discovered that direct entry for training as pilot or observer had terminated a month ago. I felt I could not afford the short term commission route so we were told to go for training in a basic trade and then remuster to aircrew. Both Ted and I had been active in Canada in Militia so it was natural for us to become armourers.
After boot camp at Brize Norton we went to the brand new Air Armament School at Manby, Lincs. Best school I ever attended. They were primarily civilian instructors and we covered everything from machine-guns, cannons, high explosives, bomb sights, turrets etc. I even had several flights in various aircraft.
I recall sitting in the pilot's seat of a Hawker Fury while the instructor was lecturing on the interceptor gear for the guns firing between propeller blades. The cover was off the unit when the impellers actuated off the engine on a cam. When he told me to press the firing button I did just that and he got the biggest squirt of oil in his face. He wasn't too happy but it was fun. There were four Canucks in our class at Manby; Ted and I, Gordie Mann from Toronto and Jack Wallace, Saskatoon.
I completed armament school in late July, 1939. I met a lad from Yorkshire at the school and after spending a week-end on board his father's new 53 foot luxury cruiser, it was arranged that on completion of the course we would sail to Holland with his family and enjoy a leave. I was given a posting to join a squadron at Upper Heyford. By this time the situation in Europe was critical and all leaves were cancelled. At Upper Heyford I met Jim White from Victoria. He had gone to England several months before me and while I had not known him before, we became good friends and had some good times together.
The morning of September 3, 1939 the squadron was doing air-to-air firing exercises using short belts of ammunition. At about 11 a.m. I recall the man with the umbrella (Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain) telling us we were at war with Germany. We quickly removed the short belts of ammo and loaded up to the hilt. I recall a sprog coming to our section who I had assigned a job in the belt filling room to make up 500 round belts of ammo in a particular sequence. An hour later when I checked on him I found him with a sketch book drawing 303 cartridges which he had placed on a wooden block. His remark, "Ain't they beautiful?" I think he was sent to Kai Tak.
After a week-end leave, Jim (White) and I went to London. On our return the squadron was sent to France.
We sailed from Southampton to Brest and then by train to the Somme. Our first air base was near Roye. We then went to Lihons near Chaulnes, where we spent the winter. Other than establishing bomb ammo and fuel dumps, it was a monotonous time. Our C.O, W/Co Day insisted that he would be first over the line to do a recco.. He was shot down and became the first P.O.W...Book (Wings Day)
I recall one incident at Poix airfield. I had gone to the village with a tractor and a train of bomb dollies to bring up supplies from a rail car. While there a train pulled in with refugees from Rotterdam, Holland. I spoke with a mother who had a little girl about five years old with an injured leg. As they had not eaten all day I emptied my haversack. On my way back to the airfield just as I crested a hill two squadrons of He 111's arrived at 1,000 feet and ignoring the airfield, bombed and machine-gunned the village. I was not able to return to the rail centre as we were ordered to move again that night. I can well imagine the result.
In France we were told we could now apply for remustering to aircrew which Jim and I both took advantage of. After much red tape we had interviews and waited. I think something got lost in the shambles that followed.
Jim and I visited many places of interest in France. In January, 1940 we enjoyed two weeks leave in Paris; a lovely city. We were the first Canadians on leave in Paris and had something of the Royal treatment. We were instructed to visit our Canadian Ambassador, who was the late Gov. Gen Vanier.
He was most kind. On our return to base we immediately planned another leave to the south of France commencing May 14. We didn't make it.
Early in the morning of May 10, 1940, a squadron of Dornier 17 appeared, ignored our airfield completely, circled the village then bombed Chaulnes, our next town; a rail and highway centre. Every night we were on the move as Gerry advanced. I recall one night when we were ordered to destroy much material. I think much of this was unnecessary. Some of the aircraft destroyed had nothing but a single bullet puncture and no structural damage. We left a number of large ammo, fuel and bomb dumps behind us. We were told the engineers would blow them up. It would have been so easy for us to do that. Not long after, some of these bombs were dropped in England. Late in May we exited France at Boulogne.
I often think that our valiant effort in France must have been under the direction of General Guderian, the Panzer Corps General. It is a debilitating experience to be shunted from pillar to post, seemingly, with no effective result.
It wasn't much, but when I left France at Boulogne, I had my rifle, three .45 colt revolvers, and my pockets full of various detonators for bombs, and plenty of ammunition.
After landing at Dover we went to an army camp at Salisbury Plain, slept for 48 hours in a tent, had an ice-cold shower and felt starved. We were then moved to Gatwick, which had the only hard-surfaced runway in England at that time. It is adjacent to a race track and for several weeks we slept in the open grandstand. Fortunately the weather was kind to us. After being re-equipped with aircraft and related material we were moved to Feltwell, Norfolk. I don't remember much about the place except that Jim had a close call, a lone Dornier swooped down out of the clouds and a burst of machine-gun fire hit the window ledge above his bunk.
We were moved again in July, 1940 to Lossiemouth, Scotland, for a so-called rest. We carried out one raid - Stavanger, Norway. Six aircraft from our squadron participated. Most did not return. We established a satellite airfield at Elgin, about four miles from Lossiemouth. There we met Willie Craig, the manager of a distillery, Ballantyne, which is in fact owned by Hiram Walker of Canada. We met often with Willie Craig and his family. Fine people and fine Scotch whiskey.
Jim and I were separated at Elgin as he received a posting to Wiltshire. Several months later we were moved south and re-equipped with Wellington Aircraft in #3 Bomber Group. I was at Huntington the night of Oct. 20, 1940 when Coventry was blasted. Even though we were at some distance we could clearly hear the heavy stuff.
We were moved back to Feltwell, Norfolk and then to Martlesham Heath, Suffolk. I recall one night while I was on fire-watch during a red alert. Things were getting a little tight so I thought I would locate myself near the entrance to an air raid shelter. When I got there I found it completely filled. The last airman was wearing his helmet and shirt only. In the moonlight it looked hilarious.
At the end of 1940 I was promoted to the rank of sergeant and sent to an army engineers school for two weeks course in bomb disposal. Then I spent one week in London with the navy for mines disposal instruction, after which I reported to Redhill, Surrey to #1 Bomb Disposal Squad.
In 1940 the Royal Engineers had their hands full clearing the cities of U.X.B.'s (unexploded bombs). The R.A.F. formed bomb disposal squads using armourer types for the express purpose of keeping airfields operational.
The assigned area for #1 BDS (bomb disposal squad) was Air Ministry in London West to Ascot, and all the area south of that line through Surrey, Sussex and parts of Kent. Our airfields included Purley, Croydon, Biggin Hill, Tangmere, Ford, Shoreham, Gosport and of course our base Redhill. The job of bomb disposal is really not as frightening as it sounds. We very quickly became acquainted with the enemy armaments, especially when a really keen Kraut armourer left his armament handbook (for our benefit), in a JU 88 which was shot down.
I remember my first job; Shoreham airfield, just below Brighton. Several 250 kg. bombs had been dropped by low-flying ME 109's. For some reason or another they did not detonate. Perhaps they came to rest before the firing condenser was charged or they never did receive the electric charge to arm them. No sooner had I attached the receptacle to defuse the electric charge (I felt no current), than two Corporals who had done all this before commenced hammering at the tail cone to remove it. I'm sure it was done for my benefit and it worked. I was scared!
At Redhill I met Major Russell Kerr, C.O. A.A. Unit with a number of chaps from Victoria whom I had not seen for some time. Included in these was Eric Marshall who was the agent in Victoria for the Cunard White Star Line.
The job was extremely boring because of long waits between jobs. One event I will never forget. After a night raid on Biggin Hill airfield there was a UXB near the auxiliary power house. The size of the hole it made suggested a big bomb (Herman) which normally would not be armed with a time fuse. I remember going down the hole about 7 feet to determine which way the bomb may have turned. They seldom go straight down. It was decided that we could allow the maximum 80 hours to allow a time fuse to fire. We piled a wall of sandbags to protect the power house and left the bomb for three days.
The following day we arrived with all our equipment. We dug down and found the bomb inches from where we had probed a few days before, it had turned completely, lying slightly nose up. As soon as a part was showing I attached the mike. It was completely silent. I placed the squad 100 yds. away under cover listening with the large stethoscope. I then found the fuses and discovered a black #17 time fuse plus a #55 anti handling fuse, in a 250 kg bomb. I then went to the station adjutants office to telephone my boss at Redhill giving him all the information available so far. On my return to the site, the squad was in a turmoil, hollering, "The clock is going! The clock is going!" The time mechanism in the #17 fuse is a clock about the size of a pocket Ben. The final action is a lever sliding along the rim of a small wheel in which there is a slot. When the wheel has rotated according to the setting so that the lever slides into the slot, it releases a firing pin which activates the detonator. The 80 hours is a safe measure but often the clock will stop and restart by vibrations from vehicles, trains, aircraft etc.
After checking carefully with the stethoscope, we found that the clicking was not the clear tick of a clock. Returning to the site I found some water dripping down on the bomb and no doubt the sensitive microphone magnified the sound. A Corporal and I attached the new diffusing apparatus to both fuses and retired for a half hour. We then brought up KIM, a heavy magnet operated by 110V battery and a generator back up. After a little more clearing of earth from around the bomb we were able to place KIM on top of the time fuse. When applying the current it should stop the clock and allow you to move it. We were then able to set up the equipment to lift the bomb nose up, remove the tail plug and get a steam jimmy going to steam out the H.E. Fortunately we never did hear that clock, and safely moved the bomb away to remove the fuses by remote control.
I had hoped that the time clock would be returned to me after examination at Air Ministry, however it was not returned, no doubt the Squadron bleeder at A.M. wanted it more than I did.
With the many moves that I made, mail from home was a problem. I often went to B.C. House in London where I met (hosts) Mr. & Mrs. McAdam - lovely people and very helpful. Often they had theatre tickets for me. Eventually all of my mail from Canada was directed c/o B.C. House and then re-directed to me. On one occasion at B.C. House I ran into Rex Carey, Lt. P.P.C.L.I. from Victoria, and his charming fiancé. They were in the final stages of arranging their wedding and I was invited. Unfortunately I couldn't attend as I was tied up with a bomb at Kidbrook Arsenal.
While in Scotland I again enquired about remustering to aircrew. I was told that my application made in France was lost and that I would have to re-apply. So once again I went through the routine with the same stupid questions.
In December, 1941, I received a signal from the Air Ministry advising me I was promoted to Flt. Sgt. and to report to Manchester early in January for a posting to the Middle East in the same job I was doing. A Warrant Officer type at Redhill listened to me when I told him what I thought of the R.A.F. in general and the stupid Limeys in particular. He made a phone call to A.M. Two days later I received another signal from A.M. -"Cancel previous order. Report to St. Johns Wood, London for aircrew training." It was a great day.
From January to June of 1942, I was at the I.T.W. Paignton, Devon and then posted to Desford, near Leicester, for initial flying. It was the sorting out place for pilots, navigators, etc. We flew Tiger Moths and I loved it. I was expected to go solo after 5 hours 10 minutes.
When the test pilot checked me out I landed at 20 feet up, got hell supreme, but after two more landings I made my first solo. It's a beautiful feeling.
Finally in late August, 1942, I sailed for Canada on a U.S.A. convoy with four merchant vessels, numerous naval ships, including a battle-wagon. We arrived in New York. It was ironic. In 1938 I had paid my way to Britain to learn to fly and now I was returning to Canada for aircrew training.
While at sea one vessel in our convoy caught fire. We left it with several destroyers remaining behind to assist. No knowledge of final outcome.
I well recall the train ride from New York to Moncton N.B. in September, 1942.
After years of blackout it was quite an experience leaving Grand central station early in the evening to see lights blazing brightly everywhere. I didn't sleep. I was posted to E.F.T.S. at Bowden, Alberta, flying Boeing Stearmans, Tiger Moths, for instruments training, and finally Cornells. Then I went to S.F.T.S., Calgary, Alberta, flying Harvards. Great fun. I loved aerobatics.
We graduated with a wings parade in April, 1943. I received a commission and was sent to Flying Instructors School, Arnprior, Ontario. One month in springtime Ontario, beautiful country.
I was then posted to Assiniboia, Sask. a R.A.F. E.F.T.S. I think I really learned something about flying as an instructor but I wished to be back where the action was.
In February of 1944, R.A.F. personnel were sent back to England. It was a luxury trip, solo, on the New Amsterdam. On arrival in England, and after some leave, I was posted to Harrogate, Yorkshire. The place was overcrowded with aircrew. As ex-instructors we were given priority. "What would you like to do?" I was asked. Having been in France in 1939-40, my selection was tactical airforce. Several days later I was told that T.A.F. is booked solid, "How about recco?" I accepted. I wanted to do something. High altitude Spitfires or Mosquito aircraft required me to take decompression tests. Three 2-hour sessions in the tank at simulated 37 thousand feet. I passed the test and waited. Eventually a posting came along to Hatfield, Herts. The home of de Havilland aircraft and Mosquitoes. Instead of Mosquitoes I had to fly Tiger Moths to become acquainted with the English countryside. The country is beautiful and the fields do not make a compass grid like the Canadian prairie.
When I went for my maps at Panshanger, the satellite Hatfield airport, I met a very charming lady Yvonne Mary Russell. She appeared to be very busy but we managed a few dates in the two weeks I was there. I returned to Hatfield a few weeks after my next posting and she accepted my marriage proposal. Forty plus years later she is still beautiful and I love her. As I had only single engine flying time I was posted to twin engine conversion school. Several months later I was expecting a posting to fly Mosquitoes. I was posted to Silverstone, Northants., a Wimpy O.T.U. in #5 Bomber Group. We put together a bomber crew and I was quite proud of them. Two other Canadians, the rest U.K. types. We had several recalls from week-end leaves, primarily to drop window on the route of the following bomber stream. For this crew the war ended a little too soon. We had just completed O.T.U. and were ready for OPS. when the war in Europe ended.
In February, 1945 I had been transferred to the R.C.A.F. so after V.E. Day I was posted to Topcliffe, Yorks. As I had not completed a tour of OPS. and was a permanent force type, I felt I should volunteer for service in the Pacific. We formed new bomber crews and were to be given a months leave then back to England to fly the new long range Lancaster bomber to China for OPS. against Japan. The August atom bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ended all of that.
I arrived home in October, 1945. After several months of doing nothing (The R.C.A.F. appeared to be completely without direction at this time), I retired from the airforce with the rank of Flight Lieutenant.
----- Al Effa
Copyright 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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