The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Frederick Donald Leason
Fitter, 242 Squadron, RAF
I was born in Victoria, British Columbia, October, 1916, the sixth of eight sons of Edward E. Leason and Dora Leason. Before war's end, five of us were in the service overseas. At the time our family held the record for most brothers in uniform in all of Canada. However I am a bit ahead of my story.
I worked in lumber mills in Victoria, and at Chemainus and Royston on Vancouver Island. In 1939, after I made my connection with Captain Biggs I travelled to New York with Ian Hoy and Vic Jakeman. I can't recall the name of the ship we sailed on, but we became involved in a very severe storm and about the fourth day out we turned around and headed back towards New York to try and pick up survivors from a Dutch liner that had capsized. No one was allowed on deck, but being foolish young kids up we went. We were hanging on for dear life, because large waves were coming over the decks pretty high. Our ship circled the area of the capsized vessel for two or three hours, and all we saw was debris floating on the surface; bed mattresses, boxes, clothing, things like that. We never picked up any survivors.
Arriving in England we docked at the Surrey Docks in the Thames estuary. From Surrey we went directly to Kingsway where we enlisted on February 20th, 1939. This was prior to the war, so I was signing on for six years regular service in the R.A.F. My service number was 634971. I remember the medical officer on hearing my accent, asking if I was a Canadian, and were we still having trouble with the Indians.
I was sent to a base called Driffield, for square-bashing. Here, with hundreds of other guys, I learned how to march, drill and handle a rifle. While at Driffield, my mother sent me a full case of apples and by the time they arrived in England they were getting pretty soft, so I sold them to my fellow airmen at sixpence each. (about 10cents).
After eight weeks of square-bashing I was posted on May 12, 1939 to N0. 2 Wing, St. Athan in Wales, to take basic training as a Fitter IIA. That is a fitter airframe. It was while I was at St. Athan that war was declared.
After completion of my course I was posted to N0.10 B & G. S. (Bombing and Gunnery School) Wormwell, Dorset, where they were training air gunners and bombers. We were flying Seals, a two-wing airplane(biplane) open cockpit, pilot and gunner, with top speed about 90 miles and hour if you were pushing it, with a wind behind you. We towed target drogues for air to air firing practice. The drogues, white in colour, were at the end of 450 to 500 feet of steel cable behind the aircraft. The air gunners were just young kids, some just 17 or 18 years of age. Each gunner had an allotted amount of ammunition and each gunner's ammunition had been dipped in different coloured paints so that if and when they hit the target, they could identify the shell that hit it and consequently would know which gunner to credit for the hit. We used to drop the drogue at a designated area for pick-up and count of bullet holes.
Quite often, when these young kids got the twin machine-guns going, they would get carried away and spray the sky with lead. We always had a Very cartridge pistol with us, loaded with a red cartridge, and if they became too erratic we would fire the cartridge, and the pilot in the bomber would turn the aircraft in such a position that the machine-gunners couldn't hit us by mistake.
One day I reported in sick and another airman took my place towing the drogue. Both he, the pilot and the aircraft were lost - shot down by the airgunners.
Canada wanted to have a representative squadron in Britain early in the war. So an all-Canadian squadron, RAF # 242, was formed. Pilots and ground crew, for the most part, were Canadians like myself who had enlisted in the Royal Air Force. On March 20, 1940 I was sent to join 242 at Church Fenton in Yorkshire. Our C.O. at that time was a Canadian named Gobiel. When the aircraft came in each crew flagged his own aircraft up to the perimeter and there big tank wagons or bowsers as we called them, came up and refuelled the aircraft.
They were also re-armed, checked over and manually pushed back to the dispersal point. When being pushed back an armourer sat in the cockpit. He is supposed to put a guard over the firing button. They are air-fired so the engine doesn't need to be running. In this instance the armourer must have hit the button somehow and all eight guns went off. A hole the size of an orange was blown in the forehead of an airman standing close to me. The explosion of the guns terrified everybody. No one could do anything. Everyone just looked at the poor guy. It was all a matter of seconds. He just turned as gray as gray could be, sat down on the ground then fell over.
On one occasion we had quite a tragedy on the station during some night-flying with twin-engine aircraft. Entrance to this particular aircraft was from underneath. Method of entry was to walk to the front of the aircraft, then down through the center of the aircraft between the two engines to get into the airplane. In the dark, no lights, with engines running, we used to yell out to anyone approaching the aircraft, "LOOKOUT FOR AIRSCREW!" A new young air-gunner came along and walked right into the prop. There was a loud SPLAT! It chopped him in half.
The sound 'airscrew' was so much like 'aircrew' that I guess the poor young bugger didn't understand. Shortly after that the Air Ministry changed the order. We were no longer to use the term 'airscrew'. From then on we had to refer to airscrew as propeller.
When the propeller and engine has a shock like that it has to go into maintenance immediately. The engine is x-rayed for cracks and the propeller is changed. Shortly after I arrived on the station the squadron was equipped with Hurricane fighter aircraft. After the squadron was fitted out, we were posted.
We flew to France in a Handley Page, a medium-sized bomber with no armament of any sort on it. We went to France as the B.E.F. (the British Expeditionary Force) and landed at a place called Chateau dun, near Paris. I will always remember it, because it reminded me so much of a desert.
There was nothing but sand. The water was polluted and not fit to drink or bath in. We drank champagne at 12 shillings a bottle. It was like vinegar, but pretty potent. After a cup of coffee the next morning you felt tipsy all over again.
We slept in the open fields underneath an aircraft wing. Some of us slept in haystacks in a nearby farmer's yard.
There were no guns on our aircraft when they arrived so we put machine-guns on them. We put four 303 Browning machine-guns in each wing - all air-activated.
We didn't have too much excitement in France for the first week or so, but later on when France capitulated it was necessary for us to leave. There was a valley with medium-sized hills on each side. We were in the valley. Shortly, German tanks lined the hills on each side of this valley. We got out of there fast. Our pilots took off and flew the squadron aircraft back to England. We destroyed the remaining aircraft as much as we had time for. Some were burned, some were shot up, some we just took the breech blocks out of the machine-guns and buried them and left the airplane intact to be later flown against us. We were instructed to head for Dunkirk and travelled in that direction by transport. The evacuation of Paris was in progress then and it was impossible to travel very fast on the roads because of the people. I had never seen a group of people parading like that before. The highway was clogged. Wagon-loads of personal belongings were being pulled by horses. Some wagons were pulled by the people themselves. Some rode on bicycles with luggage tied everywhere to the bicycle. We had to try and proceed through it all. On the way we gave food to those in need. We gave them gas from our five-gallon cans, for the cars that had stalled. Later, after about 3 or 4 days travelling, we found we couldn't get to Dunkirk. Our way was blocked off by German tanks. We proceeded to St. Nazaire, further south in France.
There we prepared to board a liner going back to England. There were thousands and thousands of people in uniform; navy, army, airforce. Again we destroyed any equipment that might be useful to the Germans. All the while we are being bombed and strafed. We were constantly seeking shelter and couldn't do too much running around. We boarded the liner. There must have been thousands of us. There was no room to walk around. You couldn't change positions. The ship was so top-heavy with troops, the captain was in fear of the balance of the ship being upset if too many men moved about.
We weren't allowed to go from one deck to the next. Service Police with rifles and machine-guns turned us back. A ship in front of us had a direct hit from a bomb and started to sink. All kinds of debris was floating around in the water. Servicemen, some with and some without lifejackets, were trying to swim to safety. We couldn't stop long enough to pick them up or we would subject ourselves to enemy bombing and gunfire. All we could do was steam right through them. A few Hurricanes and Spitfires came to our aid trying to ward off the attackers, but it was a very meagre attempt.
On the ship I had a meal which consisted of 3 weenies, and one boiled egg. I was so hungry I just picked up the weenies and tried to chew them, but with great difficulty. I was unaware they were wrapped individually in plastic. I had never seen that sort of packaging before. I think we had only three meals all during that return voyage.
We finally got to England after five or six days and our squadron lads were sent to Coltishall, in Norfolk, to regroup. We had lost an awful lot of our personal possessions; clothing, personal equipment, headquarters records, squadrons records. The only record I have is from witnesses and the fact that the Victoria paper at one time or another reported that we were over there.
The Red Cross reported to my mother by telegram that we had been either killed or taken prisoner.
After we had regrouped, 242 Squadron became involved in the Battle of Britain. We were flying night patrol over London and the English Channel. In one episode I distinctly remember, the Air Ministry announced that we had shot down 12 aircraft this one particular night, without losing one aircraft. Well we had sent out 12 (two flights) and on returning one aircraft undershot theaerodrome and smashed through the billets (there weren't any landing lights or anything out then). It tore up our billets pretty bad. At that time, we had one suit of clothes - we took paint or dope as we called it, and threw it over our clothes and blamed it on to the kite that had crashed in the billet. Consequently we got a new outfit out of it. But we did lose one aircraft. The pilot was okay.
We brought back a little mixed mongrel with us from France and we named him Champagne. He became our squadron mascot. We had aircraft starting rigs that we used to roll out on two wheels. One of the lads was pulling on the starter rope and got his finger caught in it and cut it off. Champagne was there and he grabbed the guys finger and ate it. Champagne was later killed when run over by a transport truck.
We would send out anything up to 12 aircraft a night and have only three or four return. If there was no contact with the enemy they would all come back. But young pilots used to come in there at 18 years of age, with about eight hours flying time in a Hurricane, and off they would go. We always used to say goodbye to them because we knew damn well one or two weren't coming back. It was the first and last flight for some of them. We lost Pilot Officer McKnight (foot note 1, McKnight Boulevard, in Calgary is named for him). He was from Calgary, Alberta and pilot of my aircraft LE-A. He had the picture of a saint painted on the side of his airplane. His plane was flying with another pilot over the North Sea. He had 12 known victories to his credit. According to the pilot who was with him there was no ack ack, no enemy attacks, no shooting of any kind. His plane simply fell out of the sky and crashed into the ocean. There was no explanation of why he died, whether his motor quit or not.
About this time the Royal Air Force couldn't keep up the supply of Canadian personnel for replacement and so started to send in English personnel to keep the squadron at full strength.
It was here where Squadron Leader Douglas Bader came to take over the squadron. I always remember the day he drove up in his little staff car. He hopped out and refused to use a cane. He had two artificial legs. He walked up to the flight building. The pilots present at the time wondered what kind of a commander is this with artificial legs? He got wind of this almost immediately and barked out an order, "Go start up LE-D. ( LE was 242's letter designation - Bader took aircraft 'D' as his name was Douglas) From now on that is my aircraft," he said.
He put that airplane through manoeuvres over the aerodrome, so severe, that he made the 18 and 19-year-old kids cringe. Bader later had the squadron symbol painted on his aircraft, a picture of a boot kicking Hitler in the ass-end. A story used to go about that he lost his legs when he crashed while flying a Miles Magister upside down picking handkerchiefs off a clothes line.(this is untrue).
Returning from a sortie one day Bader's radiator was all shot up and he was sprayed in glycol. Glycol was used in the radiators so they wouldn't freeze. When he got out of the airplane he said to the young pilots who came out to look at the damaged aircraft, "That's one thing I have over you. Had you been in that airplane and caught fire, your legs would have been burnt to a frazzle with the anti-freeze coming out of the radiator." Then with a chuckle he added, "All I have to do is change my pants." He was by far the best commander I ever had. There was nothing we could do that the Service Police could touch us for. We used to walk out in civilian shoes, civilian shirts and ties and things like that, and he would defend us in every way, although he might give us hell privately. Once after a night out we came back and turned on the lights in our billet without drawing the blackout curtains.
1 See Sir Douglas Bader in Appendix
The Station Commanding Officer came down and ordered us out of the building. We had to take everything out and move back to our dispersal where our aircraft were. For a few days we had to sleep out in the open under the wings of the aircraft. Squadron Leader Bader was furious. He flew his aircraft to Air Ministry in London and demanded that we be put back in the billets. On his return he told the commanding officer, who was far above him, that we were going to use those billets. From then on in we could get away with murder.
After 242 was no longer considered to be an All-Canadian squadron, I was posted to RAF Biggin Hill. Biggin Hill was the main defense of London. It was named Biggin Hill, because it's a large hill with the top cut off like a cap on the landscape, with the airfield on top of the hill. Occasionally when aircraft flew around below the level of the airfield you couldn't see them. From there we could see the bombing runs on London, see the fires burning...it was lit up like a main street in town.
I worked in the maintenance section where we rebuilt damaged aircraft and put them back into service. We were bombed and strafed all the time. In one incident a few of us were standing outside the hangar just as a Spitfire had been shot down. The pilot parachuted out. The Spit. came straight down into the middle of the airfield. It buried itself and left a crater. It wasn't worth digging out. They just took truckloads of dirt and filled it in. It might even be there today. Another time we were standing outside the hangar watching the action of the air battles going on overhead. A civilian employee standing next to me, was leaning on a shovel handle. A stray bullet came down, split the handle in half and he fell to the ground. He panicked, picked himself up and ran away. I never saw him again.
I went on leave for a week to Leeds, Yorkshire, where I had a friend. On the way I became involved in the bombing of Coventry. Coventry was where 99 per cent of all the spark plugs were made for the airforce, they were special spark plugs. Two in each cylinder.
When the raid began our train stopped on the outskirts of Coventry. We were stuck on the train and couldn't get through. We could hear all the explosions and see all the flashes. It's a good-sized city. They flattened it in one night after four hours bombing. After the raid was over and the ALL CLEAR had sounded we went on to Leeds.
From Biggin Hill I was sent to #10 B & G. S. at Llandwrog, just south of Carnarvon, in North Wales. There we trained bombers and gunners again. I was promoted to Flight Sergeant, in charge of a flight, mostly on night flying. We had to keep the aircraft in proper flying condition. Our mother station was Pen-y-groes, about 50 miles away where we sent anything for major overhaul or repairs.
From the flight crew I was transferred to the maintenance department, where I was in charge of all repairs, engine, airframe, radio, everything.
We were right on the Irish Sea. The beach was land-mined for about 25 yds from the water line to the edge of the airport. We had a little mascot dog. He walked in between the barbed wire and was blown to smithereens. It was so wet at this airfield that for a good three months I never had any dry clothes on my back. We wore rubber boots all the time. One winter's day, with about an inch of snow on the ground, I watched an aircraft take off. We didn't know then about defrosting the wings. This bomber with a crew of nine came tearing down the airfield and raised up off the ground. You could see the pilot had realized he wasn't going to clear the buildings. He pulled the nose up, and straight up he went, for about 500 feet, then fell back on his tail. Full of fuel and ammunition, the aircraft exploded.
Another time we had two aircraft landing on the same runway from different directions. I guess the Flying Control Officer was asleep, because he didn't warn them off. They collided about 100 feet above the runway. We could see the crew desperately trying to climb out through the flames. They were burnt alive. Eighteen of them died that day.
One of the aircraft had veered off to the left and we managed to get the pilot out, while all the ammunition was exploding. The pilot's clothing was in flames. Everybody was in such a panic all they could do was throw dirt on him to put out the fire. He died later.
An aircraft ran loose one day and chewed up the tail of another, putting an airman in hospital.
I was discharged February 18, 1945 and transferred into the R.C.A.F. I had been in the Royal Air Force one day short of six years. I have always figured they did that to prevent having to pay me a pension. I may be wrong. My new service number in the R.C.A.F. was R225620. I took my rank of Flt. Sergeant with me, for the duration of the war.
After the war, not having too many friends in Victoria anymore (a lot of the boys still hadn't returned from overseas), I enlisted in the Canadian Army 536774 as a Warrant Officer 2nd Class. 13th Field Ambulance, R.C.A.M.C. I was discharged on the lst of November 1950. After that I didn't join two pieces of string together, let alone another service.
----- Frederick Leason
[ Leason now lives in Edmonds, Oklahoma and his hobby since the war has been the building of model flying-radio-controlled airplanes. One of his most recent was a Hurricane with an eight-foot wingspan. It cost about $2,000 to build. It is complete with retractable wheels, and electrically operated flaps. The C.O. of the Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City asked if Leason would put his aircraft on display in a model aircraft show in one of the big malls. He did so. It was given a lot of publicity. Leason received a citation from the base commander, a beautiful trophy for best aircraft in the show, and a signed certificate. He was asked to contribute it to their aircraft museum when he no longer had use for it.]
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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