The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Robert Frank Hawes, MD
111 Squadron RAF, Dunkirk, Battle of Britain, World War II, RAF/RCAF
I first became interested in the R.A.F. when H.M.S. York came to Victoria, B.C., in the summer of 1938 and docked at Esquimalt naval base. Two Walrus aircraft were attached to the ship and manned by R.A.F. personnel. I met one or two of the R.A.F. chaps and chummed around with them for the two weeks the York was visiting. I loved listening to their stories. One fellow had done his overseas tour in the Middle East and "had a ball" overseas. It sounded exciting to me.
There had been a lot in the paper about Captain Seymour-Biggs and his boys going to the R.A.F. so I got in touch with him. He arranged for all the necessary documents one would need. I seem to recall he was able to get certain privileges through the Cunard Line having been with them at one time.
After I received the go ahead from Biggs I went to Seattle and booked a Greyhound Bus to New York. I met two other Biggs' chaps in Seattle, can't remember their names now. We boarded the Ausonia in New York. It was a sister ship to the Athenia. [ The Athenia was sunk 10 hours after war was declared on September 3, 1939 ]. The Ausonia called in at Halifax and then on across the Atlantic to land at the docks right in London. I had an uncle there who met me at the ship and took me up to the Air Ministry. I was in London a couple of days or so and then I was sworn in at West Drayton. It was the place everyone went at that time.
I had my basic training [rifle drill and discipline] at Scampton, Lincolnshire. I was posted to Hednesford for Flight Mechanic training, and then the last month of it at St. Athan, South Wales. St. Athan was a tremendous camp. They cut our course a little short because the war had started. This was about October 1939.
After training I was posted to 111 Hurricane Squadron. It was the crack Hurricane Squadron, the original Brylcreem Cream Boys squadron. They were the first squadron equipped with Hurricanes. We travelled around a great deal, Acklington and then Wick for about 3 or 4 months until April, 1940. Then we were brought back to Northolt and then to Manston to get prepared to go over to the continent. I flew over to the continent in an old Ford Tri-motor with a bunch of the lads. We were `A' Flight and landed in Lille in the northern part of France, almost to the Belgium border. This was just one flight of 111 Squadron. We were at Lille only a few weeks where we operated out of a hayfield. Our biggest chore was picking the grass out of the radiator of the Hurricanes. Finally the hay was cut from the field so the aircraft could take off properly. Our aircraft flew back to Northholt or Manston at night. It wasn't safe to leave them on the airfield overnight with the amount of bombing activity that was going on.
One morning we were waiting for our aircraft to come back for the day's activities. We were standing around with nothing to do. There was only one unserviceable aircraft. "Here they come," someone said, when a flight of aircraft was noticed coming in over the horizon. We had sent only five back, and here we are counting six. "Oh boy!" we're saying, "They've brought the mail. I wonder who the extra kite is?" At the far end of the runway three Lysanders [high-wing monoplanes], were just taking off; two sort of in formation and the third one a few hundred yards behind. Suddenly we realized that what we thought were our Hurricanes coming back, were actually ME 109s.
There was a rat-a-tat-tat and BOOM! They got the two front Lysanders almost simultaneously. Straight down they went - on fire.
Eventually things got so damned bad our Hurricanes didn't come back. We were more or less stranded. A few of the gang got away and about 12 of us were left with an old Bedford truck we had acquired from somewhere. We were diverted to a holding field down near Merville, somewhere closer to central France.
By this time a few pilots were turning up who had lost aircraft and we spent our time patching up aircraft for them to fly. We got quite a number of aircraft serviceable enough to be flown back to England. Then they told us to get out and back to England the best way we could. Boulogne was still open at the time we started out, at least we figured it was, but by this time Gerry had got into Boulogne and Calais. We learned the only spot to head for was Dunkirk.
We didn't move during the day. We pushed the Bedford truck into a hedgerow or wherever we could get a bit of cover to hide it. We lay around during the day and moved only at night. It was almost impossible to move about on the roads. They were jammed packed with refugees. There wasn't quite as much movement at night and they would park right in the middle of the road. It was very, very slow progress.
When we arrived at Dunkirk we lay in behind the sand dunes for nearly two days or so. Eventually we were told to move out on to the beach to pick up a lifeboat or whatever we could. A lifeboat had come in so we waded out to that and were taken out to a destroyer. I was so dead beat I crawled into a corner on the destroyer and didn't wake up until I had actually walked, sort of sleep walking, off the ship and was halfway up the dock in Dover. Somebody shoved a bowl of hot tea, not even a handle on it, into my hands. That woke me up pretty quick. That was my first recollection of the whole trip. I can't recall the crossing at all. They assembled us in a camp on the Salisbury Plains, Tidworth I think it was. That was probably one of the roughest times I had in the R.A.F.
A most interesting thing occurred while I was standing on the Tidworth railway platform, waiting to leave the camp to head back to join my squadron. One of the chaps I was talking to said, "There's a chap over there who is a Canadian." So over I go to this chap in civilian clothes and he says hello to me and asked where I was from. I told him Victoria, B.C. He said, "Oh I just left Victoria a few weeks ago to bring the tug, the Salvage King over to Liverpool. I had a couple of days so I have just come down here to visit some relatives." He took my picture standing there on the railway platform. When he got back to Victoria, he called around to see my folks. He gave them the picture and told them he had seen me, because of course on hearing about Dunkirk and not having heard from me, they were getting quite concerned.
I returned to 111 Squadron and now things were really starting to get hot, with the approach of the Battle of Britain. We moved around so much there were times we didn't even know what station we were on; just in that circuit around London, Digby, Northweald, Croydon. We took quite a hammering in Croydon when they bombed the aircraft factory there.
By October, 1940 the main part of the day raids were just about over. I was sent on a Fitter's course up to Wolverhampton, at Cosford. I was going from Flight Mechanic to a Fitter. I was about two months there. I spent Christmas at Bicester in Oxfordshire. There had been a Blenheim squadron there and they were in the process of changing it over to an O.T.U. That was a rough time too, because we were all on ALERT for the expected invasion of England. We got about one 6-hour pass a week during that period. We were either on guard duty or in line picket or some such deal. I put in for overseas service (out of England). I thought I might get to the Middle East. I was on an overseas draft very shortly afterwards. I was posted up to Greenock to get a ship but before I got there, the ship I was to sail on was bombed and sunk at the dock the previous night. I had a holiday for three or four days in Greenock while waiting for other transportation. I was then routed back and billeted in Kilmarnock for a month or so.
Eventually my draft was put on the leave boat from Iceland, the Royal Ulsterman, which had previously been a cattle boat between Belfast and Glasgow. We spent another three weeks in Iceland waiting for further transportation. A small group of us were placed on an armed Merchant Cruiser which was heading for Halifax. This was about May of 1941. About the second day out of Reykjavik we got word that HMS Hood had been sunk.
We headed north between Iceland and Greenland; so far north that we ran into ice flows. We saw lots of debris from the Hood which made us all pretty conscious of what was going on. We hadn't realized we were so near the area where it was sunk. All day we were at lifeboat stations. Our hammocks were hung right up in the forepeak of the ship. We didn't even take our clothes off, we were that conscious of what we were up against. Early one morning lying in our hammocks there was a great clatter and commotion when we started to run into ice flows. I was out of there like a flash. It only took me five seconds to get up on to the deck of the ship. I was about the 35th one to make it there so I wasn't as fast as I thought I was. We were in a sea of ice. I heard later it had damaged the ship. It was quite interesting to say the least. Eventually our ship turned around and went on to drydock in Halifax for repairs.
We arrived in Debert, Nova Scotia very early in June of 1941. We were forming 31 O.T.U. in Debert with Hudson aircraft. Here they initiated the Ferry Command program, getting the Hudsons from the States and fitting them with long-range tanks to fly the Atlantic. We did the first few aircraft and then later they were sent up to Montreal, Dorval, somewhere like that.
I was about 16 months or so in Debert and then posted back to the U.K., to Limavady in Northern Ireland. It was a coastal command O.T.U. and after about six months there I was posted nearby to Ballykelly the anti-submarine school and coastal command. We were also very close to the two operational Liberator squadrons 120 and 59. We were like a maintenance unit. It was an alternate site for the transatlantic stuff coming in, so there was a great deal of transient traffic. We handled all types of aircraft.
I remained there until about three weeks before the end of the war and then I got my transfer to the RCAF in London. That had been a battle all along. Even to get it beyond my station was a problem. The number of times I wrote: "Sir I have the honour to request etc." Earlier on I had written Ottawa, to the Member of Parliament from Victoria, Robert Mayhew. It was he who uncovered the Air Ministry Order for me. He wrote to me and quoted the Air Ministry Order.
I spent the first couple of weeks in London working in the base post office while my records were brought up to date. I also worked in Base Accounts for some Victory Bond drive, stuffing envelopes and one thing and another. It was located in Harrods' store at that time. For me it was just like a prison. The idea of sitting inside behind a desk all day long just about drove me up the wall. I was in London on VE-Day. It was early July of 1945 after a couple of weeks in Torquay that I was put on a draft back to Canada. I sailed on the Stratheden and landed in Quebec City. It was the first troopship to dock there since the first World War. There were a great many Canadians who had been in the R.A.F. on that ship.
During my stay in Ireland I had married. My wife followed me to Canada in 1946. Shortly after she came out I rejoined the R.C.A.F. and spent 18 years in the same trade. I was at Pat Bay (Victoria, B.C.) for the first six months or so, then four years at Sea Island (Vancouver, B.C.). I had a few update courses from time to time.
I was never stationed east of Winnipeg. By that time I had three or four children, so they didn't move me quite so often and my trade had a good bit to do with it too. Some trades moved a great deal. I think I spent all of my time with Harvard aircraft in Claresholm from 1951-55 and then wound up with them again in Penhold from 1960-64. I retired from Penhold where I was probably one of the best Harvard experts around.(ha,ha).
---- Robert Frank Hawes, MD
[Hawes is listed in the June 14, 1945 London Gazette, mentioned in despatches for Distinguished Service, this is the meaning of the designation MD]
Submitted by Ken H. Stofer
Captain Henry Seymour-Biggs
Robert Frank Hawes, MD
Dale Stephens, DFC
More to Come
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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