The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005, 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Harry Olsen
252 Wing & HQ Fighter Command, RAF
Before the war I worked for the Municipality of Oak Bay, a suburb of Victoria, B.C. I was in the Canadian Scottish Reserve.
I was interested in joining the R.A.F., and having heard about Capt. Biggs, I went to see him. He told me to go and have a medical examination.
I was 18 when I left Victoria, in September, 1938. We (there were several other chaps with me), went from Victoria to Seattle and by Greyhound Bus to New York, via the southern route through Salt Lake City then up to Chicago, Detroit and to New York.
We sailed on the Acquitania. It was meant to be her last trip. I think we went third class. She was so empty they didn't bother opening third class and put us into tourist. We had a great time and got to know all the crew and used to go down and drink beer with them. It was the first time I had ever played darts.
When we docked at Southampton an RAF sergeant came on board the ship and took us to the train. We didn't have to pay for our trip up to London, or our accommodation there, and stayed at the Union Jack Club. The RAF sergeant even took us that day on a walking-sightseeing tour through London and the next day we went with him to the depot where we joined up.
Our photographs were taken and published in the London papers, but I never did get a copy to keep.
My square-bashing days didn't come as a surprise because I had done a lot of that with the Canadian Scottish in Victoria. I had partially learned some drill, so it wasn't too bad. The only thing was of course, the 1938 war scare was on just after we joined up and we had to walk around with gas masks all the time. Every now and then a whistle or siren would go and everyone had to put their gas masks on until the ALL CLEAR was sounded.
I liked sports and there was a lot of it, so that was great. I joined up as a wireless operator. I failed the course and went to HQ Fighter Command. They were working with RDF at that time. It became radar later on and I was in the main ops room. We used to get plots. In those early days we received aircraft position information on paper and we'd just read it out to someone who would do the plotting. Gradually we learned how to do it.
Eventually I was moved up and put in charge of the air raid warning systems for the different areas, (I used to sit next to Hugh Dowding1), giving them the yellow and then the red and then the warnings would go in that area.
I remember the day war was declared. I was sitting in the NAAFI having tea with the lads listening to the radio. On comes old Chamberlain (Prime Minister) to say we were at war.
We were under canvas (in tents) at the time at Bentley Priory HQF Command. It was just outside Stanmore Common, between Stanmore and Edgeware. Bentley Priory was the house that Lord Nelson built for Lady Hamilton. There were beautiful statues of her all over the place in the well-kept gardens. They were putting in a new water main or something of the sort and there was a big ditch open and waiting for pipe. One day the air raid warning system went and everybody looked around as if to say: "What do we do?" Half of us ended up in this ditch.
As the days progressed they started sandbagging everything. We were so busy I never saw my tent for about three or four days. By the time I did get back to it, half of my stuff was missing. At the beginning of the war I used to go to B.C. House and Canada House to see if any of the lads I knew had come over. I never did meet anybody, but one day I was down in Leicester Square, near the Odeon and to one side of it was a pub you reached by going down some stairs. I was having a drink and happened to look up and here comes this sailor walking towards me, Jack Gatehouse. He lived just around the corner from us at home.
In October, 1939 my unit flew to France from Hendon. Hendon airdrome was just below Stanmore. Our job was to set up an early air raid warning system for England. We worked for the French, but we had direct lines to HQ Fighter Command. I was in Lille most of the time, living a great life.
When Jerry started his push some of us went up to Belgium to set up a station, but it never came to pass. We came back to Dunkirk and stayed in that vicinity until a day or so before it fell. We salvaged guns and radios from many fighters that were unserviceable. I carried a radio back. We escaped on a 50 foot fishboat, but got stuck on a sandbar off Ostend. It was really funny to watch.
There were about 50 or 60 of us on this fishboat. All along that coast from Ostend to, oh almost to Le Havre, I guess, it is all sandbars and channels and we get stuck on this sandbar. The captain orders everyone up to the front of the ship and to jump up and down, and then at a given signal everybody is to rush to the rear to try and force the bow up (with the weight I presume). While this is going on, Jerry is swooping in strafing us.
Our jumping up and down efforts didn't work so a boat was lowered to take an anchor across to the side of the channel so they could try winching us off. We got clear and should have been seeing Dover, but there was nothing in sight except mines popping up. We were in the middle of a British minefield. Someone was going to take a shot at one of the mines. We looked up and there were three Jerry bombers flying over. We thought we had better not shoot at the mines because the flash might attract the bombers to us. After 24 hours crossing the channel we reached England. We were sent up to London and I went back to HQ Fighter Command. We had lost everything. This was June, 1940.
I was in England until September and then posted to the Middle East. We sailed from Liverpool on the Athlone Castle where I shared a cabin. We sailed north of Ireland and right over as close as 200 miles off the Canadian coast and then back over to Sierra Leone, on the Gold Coast and from there down to Cape Town. From Cape Town a quick dash up the Red sea to Port Suez. The Italians bombed us.
We disembarked and went to Cairo. Half of our draft went to Greece. We were the lucky ones. We went to Sudan for one year. All those who went to Greece were either killed or captured.
Then we went through the Eritrea and Abyssinian campaigns then back to Khartoum. I was posted up to Alexandria and stayed there two years.
While I was with 252 Wing in Alexandria (the Americans had come out then), we used to give time signals to some of the U.S. ack-ack (anti-aircraft) emplacements. I used to chat with this American guy every night and give him the time. One night I said, "Oh by the way, where are you from?" He said, "Oh you wouldn't know. It's a place called Port Angeles." I said, "Well I'm right across the straits of Juan de Fuca, from you. My home is in Victoria, B.C."
He just about flipped, but we never did meet. After El Alamein I went up as far as Benghazi. In Benghazi we got one water bottle of water each a day. It was about 33% salt water and 33% Chlorine. Half of it went to the cookhouse for tea - the rest for drinking and a "wash". We just cleaned our teeth and never thought about washing our clothes; couldn't do it unless you went to the sea and rinsed them in salt water. After Benghazi I went to Palestine for a year. By then I had my three years desert time in.
I was posted to Haifa which was a nice spot. About this time the WAAFS were being posted overseas. I'd been away from women for so long I didn't know what to do.
We came back to England through the Med. I think while we were on the boat they had D-Day. (June 6, 1944) The Allies had landed in Europe. After a brief posting to the south I was later stationed at Dallachy, Scotland, June, 1944. We used to go along the hedges of the farmyards and find chicken eggs. The farmers didn't mind.
We had two shifts a day; 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and then the next day went on duty from 5pm to 8 a.m. the following morning. We had that day and the next day off and then back to the 8 a.m.to 5p.m. shift the following day. We had more time off than actual working hours on duty. On the night shift, if there was an operation on, the cook made up a meal for the aircrew before they left. We got to know the cooks so used to go and have supper there. Eggs, bacon and beans, which we normally didn't see. We had eggs on a Sunday morning, either fried, or that bloody dehydrated egg they made into scrambled egg.
There was a Canadian squadron there. I didn't know any of them. By then I really felt I was RAF. I HAD CANADA ON MY SHOULDER BUT I WAS RAF IN MY HEART; not R.C.A.F.
I was transferred to the RCAF and posted to Torquay to be shipped home. I sure was glad not to get transferred to the East. I'd had enough in the Middle East. I was at Torquay on VE-Day.
On arrival in Canada I went to Lachine, just outside Montreal. We were paid there but only allowed to cash in up to three or four pounds of English money.
It was good to be home again.
----- Harry Olsen
Copyright 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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