The Biggs' Boys
Online by the
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005, 2006, 2007 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of A. A. “Andy” Southall
Flight Lieutenant, CO, 5775 Mobile Signal Unit, 5756 Mobile Signal Unit, 13 Squadron, RNAS Lee-on-Solent, No. 242 Squadron. No. 228 Squadron, No. 19 Squardon, RAF, RCAF
last the day came to depart. It was
received solemn advice from Capt. Seymour-Biggs about the pitfalls to avoid in
the service and how to conduct myself.
Also sage advice from my father and mother. I was beginning to feel the growing
weight of responsibility and assured them I would do my best to live up to
their expectations. Boarding one of
the Canadian Pacific Steamships bound for
train went through Jasper, and I remember being awed by the scenic splendor of
the mountains. It was a complete
contrast when we left the
first long stop was
had always been interested in flying during my teenage years as most boys were
at that time (1936), building model airplanes and reading anything pertaining
to flying. Charles Lindbergh had
recently flown the
centre for flying activities in
An air service was established from Lansdowne airfield to Vancouver and Seattle for a brief period, flying Ford Tri-motors. I recall I was quite impressed at the time by the size of the machines.
The Victoria Daily Times Newspaper ran a series of articles on aviation to stimulate interest and by completing a questionnaire, a person, (usually teenagers), would receive flying merit badges. Of course the ultimate goal was to actually fly in a real aircraft. The answer to my wish came in the form of Maurice McGregor (later President of Trans-Canada Airlines) who flew a small two-seater known as an Alexander Eaglerock.
I imagine there were many boys in Victoria who experienced the thrill of their first flight in that machine. (the author being one)
I was also interested in short wave radio. In those days we built most of our equipment from parts, which added to the interest, especially when it worked. I was encouraged and advised by fellow members of the Victoria Short Wave Club. A neighbour of mine, Ellison Queale, (in business by that name), was especially helpful giving me morse code instruction and advice. When I eventually obtained my license and call sign, VE5OR, it was quite a thrill, and I spent many enjoyable hours communicating with HAMS in the northwest.
this time I was working with my father who operated a heating business. One day we called on a customer, Capt.
Henry Seymour-Biggs, who was having some trouble with the oil burner in his
furnace. After correcting the
trouble, I was chatting with him.
He asked me a few questions about my interest in aviation and radio and
if I was interested in a career in that field. He mentioned that the Royal Air force was
expanding, and there were opportunities in that service for young men. I told him I would be interested in
finding out more about it. He said
he would make inquiries and let me know. Evidently he had friends in
few weeks later he contacted me and gave me the details. I had a general medical examination in
went well except for the color-vision test which revealed a flaw in the
red-green area. It precluded the
possibility of aircrew training.
This was a bitter blow and I felt extremely disappointed. I discussed the situation with the
counselors who were very sympathetic. They told me there was a new
electrical school being formed at Henlow which would
give me time to complete the basic training before my first class. On
completion of basic training, I was posted to Henlow,
an old WW1 airfield, with excellent facilities located next to the
The barrack blocks were modern and relatively comfortable. They were heated by hot water and consisted of four rooms (dormitories). I was on a course which lasted a year, after which it would be possible for me to remuster to Wireless-Electrical Mechanic.
Our day began at We turned out in gym shorts and T-shirt for half an hour of PT (physical training) and then back for a shower and breakfast. Classes were from , until with an hour for lunch.
An interesting sight at Henlow was the parachute drops. All parachutes in the Service were required to be repacked periodically and a number were drop-tested. For this purpose, two ancient Vickers Vimy, twin-engine biplanes were used. Volunteers tested the chutes. At about a thousand feet over the airfield the pilot would signal the volunteers standing on a small platform mounted on the outer wing struts. On receiving the signal they pulled the ripcord and released the canopy which billowed out and dragged them off the platform. They swung like a pendulum on the way down.
interesting activity from my point of view was the Communication Flight. A number of Tiger Moth and Avro Tutor aircraft were used by pilots at the
At about the time of our conversation an open car came racing over the field, loaded with pilots from the flight. They were cheering and waving their arms. When they arrived one of them yelled: "Good show! It's a write-off. Now we can get a new Magister." We were hustled to the sick bay where we were checked out okay.
On completion of my course at Henlow in June of 1938, I was posted with rank of L.A.C. (Leading Aircraftman) to Duxford and reported to 19 Squadron Signals. The aircraft there were Bristol Bulldog fighters, which were biplanes equipped with four machine-guns that fired through the propeller.
Life on the airfield was interesting and there was always something to do. We had a resident tutor at the base and I attended evening classes while studying for the W.E.M. remustering exam. About this time I heard that we were getting a Link Trainer and I was ordered to report to Henlow for a two week course on maintenance.
After the course on the Link Trainer, I returned to Duxford in time to see the installation of our own machine by an American technician from the Link Co. He was helpful with additional information on the use and maintenance of the machine. I had the opportunity on a number of occasions to "fly" the Link and learn the basics of instrument flying, which greatly aided in the adjustment and testing.
About this time the Bristol Bulldogs were being replaced by the first Spitfires and I believe we were the first squadron (19 squadron) to be equipped, followed by 66 squadron. Our station put on a display for the public a short time later, a sort of mini air display, and we were as impressed as the civilians.
Duxford was a pleasant station set in farming country, with
low rolling hills and was just a short train ride from
Most week-ends, when the weather was favourable, the Cambridge Gliding and Soaring Club would bring their experimental gliders to Duxford to try them out, and I found their activities quite interesting.
The Cambridge University Air Squadron was also at Duxford. They flew Avro Tutors and it wasn't long before I became acquainted with Flt/Sgt. Bennett, one of the flight instructors. He knew I was keen on flying and invited me over whenever I was free. He often flew alone on test flights and I think he enjoyed having company. Of course I was ecstatic. The first flight was quite exciting with aerobatics and some hedge hopping.
later flights he tried me out on the controls which was
particularly interesting, being so different from the Link. In the meantime, there were rumours of war.
We were having modifications to upgrade our Spitfires and I was
attending school at night. We had a
classroom and a resident tutor who kept us busy. I was also preparing for the test to remuster to W.E.M.
Then suddenly my world came unglued! I was told to report to the orderly room
(May, 1939),to hear the bad news; Overseas posting! In the life of every airman was the
Damocles sword of overseas service.
We had all heard tales of what it was like;
was posted to 228 Squadron (Sunderland flying boats), normally based at
Pembroke Dock in Wales, but now posted, and flying to Alexandria, Egypt. I was to proceed to King George V Dock
found the ship and was soon settled aboard, learning the routine and lots of
B.S. from the "old sweats" who had been this route before. I didn't feel too comfortable to learn
later that we had tons of bombs and depth charges stored in the hold. It wasn't long before the white cliffs
last we arrived in
Our work day began at dawn and ended at We often went to town to excellent cinemas and cafes. There was also a good club for servicemen, where we frequently completed our evening before returning to the ship.
aircraft to which I was assigned had a Canadian skipper F/O Ellis from
day, at lunch time we heard on the radio that
were hoisted aboard the cruiser
arrangements were made for a train to take us to
arrival at the
had an interesting two days seeing the sights and participated in a ceremony at
the Arc de Triomphe. All good times come to an end and we
boarded the train for
This was followed by a dreary train ride to Pembroke Dock - it was raining.
our squadron aircraft arrived from
The worst thing that happened to us was a violent storm one night. The rain came down in buckets and the ground became so soggy that the tent pegs started to pull out and in spite of our efforts the tent started to collapse. I called HQ on the phone and explained the situation and they said to pack up the gear and they would send a truck out to pick us up shortly. About dawn we heard the truck grinding up the hillside. We were jolly glad to see them. One of the better aspects of this duty was that we closed down some nights and were billeted at a farm nearby where the food was marvelous considering the rationing in the towns.
One day a signal was received informing Canadians in the RAF that a Canadian squadron was being formed and transfers would be arranged, if desired. Within a week or two I was on my way to Church Fenton (February, 1940), where 242 Squadron was being formed. When I arrived, there was snow on the ground and the whole station had been out to clear off the runway. I later found my way to the radio shop which was a temporary wooden shed containing a few bits of equipment. In the middle of the shop sitting on a packing case and playing a clarinet was a chap named Bill MacAllister. I later obtained a guitar on which I learned to thrash out a few tunes and Bill and I had a lot of fun and became great friends.
As time went by, more fellows joined our musical group and we had some enjoyable jam sessions. More Hurricane aircraft arrived and other equipment too and we were making good progress.
Some of the pilots were flying Hurricanes for the first time and we had a number of accidents, such as landing with wheels retracted. One young pilot in particular had a streak of bad luck and three aircraft were damaged. If an aircraft was damaged beyond repair it was written off and often we were able to salvage some of the electrical and radio equipment for spares, which were in short supply.
the spring we moved to Duxford and about this time I
passed the remustering test for W.E.M. which boosted
my morale. This was the period when
the British forces were in
we embarked we drew lots for the front turret and I was delighted to win. But when I climbed in, it was like a
greenhouse - it was stifling hot. I
removed as much clothing as possible and ended up with sunglasses, trousers and
shoes. We were heavily loaded and
during take-off it seemed we were never going to get off, but with one soggy
surge we climbed over the trees at the end of the runway. We headed for the south coast and then
dropped down and crossed the channel at low-level. As we approached the French coast we
climbed a little and passed through the turbulent warm air over the farm land. We were still at a low altitude to avoid
being spotted by any enemy fighters, but it was like a roller-coaster ride all
the way to
I didn't realize how lucky I was, being in the front turret. There was a blast of air through the slot in the plexiglass where the gun barrel protruded and if it hadn't been for this I would probably have been quite air-sick. At any rate I was swallowing hard and I was hoping we would get there soon.
The airstrip was quite isolated with a collection of small wooden buildings and a couple of French fighter aircraft parked alongside the runway. Our own aircraft (Hurricanes) had arrived and were parked at one end of the field. One of them had collided with a seagull and there was a large hole in the leading edge of the port wing. It was temporarily repaired with a thin piece of plywood, bent over the leading edge and secured by some very long bolts. The plane flew okay until a more permanent repair was made. We were all hungry and there didn't seem to be anywhere to obtain food, except from a small shack, which we found out, according to one of the local residents, was the airport café. A hinged wooden canopy in front was folded down and locked with a massive padlock. We made such a fuss that eventually the owner appeared, quite sullen and without sympathy. All that was available were huge sandwiches of cheese and sliced meat and wine. We soon made short work of these heroic rations and felt much better. Some were deceived by the apparent mildness of the wine, but together with the heat were soon laid low. We stretched them out in the shade to recover. About this time a siren started to wail and someone yelled, "Take cover!" Was he kidding? There was no cover and we were milling around looking for a knot-hole or anything that remotely looked like a refuge!
Our camp was located in a wooded area at the bottom of the hill from the Chateau. We slept in large tents on piles of hay and bracken for mattresses. The field kitchen and dining area were soon in place and we established a working routine. The only outstanding event at the camp that I can remember was that one of the tents caught fire (smoking in bed?).
The news from the front was scarce and depressing. Reliable information was hard to come by and everything was confused. We knew our troops were having a rough time of it and we had lost many aircraft. We had an increasing number of air raid alarms but no attacks on the airfield. Our own aircraft were probably discouraging many of them.
One day the word came through to withdraw. Some transport was available so we packed up as much as we could and destroyed the rest.
headed south towards the
were told that where was a possibility of getting a ship at
St. Nazaire but there was no transport. We would walk, carrying our kit and
articles that were turned over to us from the N.A.A.F.I. shop the previous
night. We marched out of the
airfield and down the long hot road to
There was news that the liner Lancastria was being used to evacuate troops and then later heard there was no more room. Then we were told that the Polish liner Sobieski would take us. We lost no time getting aboard. We were as filthy as could be and were happy to have the opportunity to clean up, even if the facilities were overcrowded. Later, the crew gave us a hot meal and we felt much better. We were dive-bombed but the bomb missed us. Our party was located on the front deck and we could see what was happening. We left the harbour at on June 16th (1940) in the middle of yet another air-raid.
heard later that our pilots had shot down some of the raiders. We reached
We continued to Duxford and finally, in July, to Coltishall where we were issued new gear and set up our new radio shop.
We were shocked to hear the Lancastria had been bombed at St. Nazaire and 2800 people had been killed.
We were up early every morning to prepare aircraft for the numerous sorties during the day. At that early hour it was rather chilly and the aircraft were usually shrouded in mist until the engines were run-up and it was dispersed.
day we heard the drone of aircraft and the next thing was the concussion of
bombs exploding. Then the air-raid
siren sounded. The only casualties
were civilians who were constructing a new hangar. We were taken completely by
surprise. We moved back to Duxford so that the Squadron would be closer to the
Our new C.O. arrived and we were quite impressed and delighted to learn that he was none other than W/Comdr. Douglas Bader.(See Bader's comments appendix) He got us together and gave us a good pep talk which cheered us up, as the war had not been in our favour for a while.
About this time we received the new V.H.F. radios which made it possible for the operations controllers to track and direct our aircraft to their targets.
One night a truck arrived under armed guard with a number of boxes which had to be stored in a guarded room. The next day we learned they were I.F.F.(Identification Friend or Foe) radios, and we installed them in prepared mounts in the aircraft. These sets, when challenged by a ground station, would transmit a recognition signal back to the ground station. The sets had a detonator which destroyed the unit in the event of a crash or it could be activated by the pilot. Some of these accidentally went off during heavy landings, which was disconcerting to the pilot. When it went off there was a bang and a cloud of smoke poured out of the cockpit, followed by the pilot. It didn't damage the aircraft, but the I.F.F. set was completely destroyed. We received orders to increase the tension on the crash switch and this ended our problem.
Another device that appeared at this time was "Pipsqueak". There was a precision clock in a small teak box in the radio compartment which switched on the transmitter at intervals so that the D/F stations could track our aircraft and guide them to the enemy. The clocks were kept at constant temperature by means of an electric heater and thermostat in the teak box. When the aircraft were parked at night, it was necessary for the radioman on duty to go around every few hours and wind the clocks in the Pipsqueak. To gain access to the radio compartment it was necessary to remove a panel secured by about eight Dzus fasteners, not an easy task as they could be quite stubborn to fasten and required a very large screwdriver and the appropriate "magic" words. Because of this difficulty, most radiomen placed the panel in position but left the fasteners undone during the night and secured them in the morning before the first flight. Of course it had to happen - (Murphy's Law). One morning quite early we had an alert. The squadron had to scramble in a hurry. You can imagine the panic. Everyone dashed around taking care of last minute items. When the aircraft returned, one was missing a panel, which caused great concern and the inevitable, "why didn't you, etc." Later in the morning a farmer brought the panel in to the airfield.
As a result there were orders to fasten panels after each rewind and a hasty conference between radiomen and riggers to improve the fit and operation of the Dzus fasteners.
During our (squadron) time at Duxford, there was frequent enemy activity and at night we could hear their bombers prowling around while we were trying to get to sleep.
had a decoy airfield not far away with a few lights and dummy aircraft which
they bombed occasionally and we could see the flashes and feel the bumps. Later, some wit said that the enemy
dropped some wooden bombs on our decoy field. There was a lot of humour
in our day-to-day lives and I especially remember the fellows who had the wit
and imagination to keep us amused and our spirits high, even in the most
depressing situations. During this
period our aircraft were based at Colitshall, but
used Duxford for operational purposes at various
times, joining other wings in the defense of the
Getting enough fuel for the fireplaces and water heater was a constant problem and we became skilled in scrounging coal and wood. One morning, at daybreak, I was getting dressed when I heard a high-pitched whine of diving aircraft. I ran to the window in time to see two enemy twin-engine bombers drop bombs on our hangar from low level. There had been no warning siren or any shots fired. They had caught us napping in fact. Some of our fellows were beating on a closet door downstairs where ammunition was kept for our machine guns in front of the house. The door was locked and the sergeant who had the key was at breakfast. As a result of the raid our radio shop in the hangar was gutted and we lost most of our equipment. We also lost a new Hurricane four-cannon fighter which had arrived the night before, with two others.
One day, several of us walked to the beach which wasn't too far away. A German bomber had been brought down and it had made a belly landing. We removed some of the electrical equipment that remained and carried it back for examination. We were impressed by the technology and quality of the components. The wires, which were brightly color-coded, had a superior plastic insulation similar to our automotive wiring of today(1992). We were still using rubber insulation at this time.
On clear days we could see the balloon barrage over Harwich. They sparkled in the sun like a school of fish. Sometimes there was an air-raid at night over there and the searchlights would probe around and we would see the twinkle of the flack and hear guns.
of the more pleasant sounds at Martlesham was our jazz concert by a group of musicians in the R.A.F.
who had played in
Our weekly treat was a trip to
Sometimes there would be a dance, which was well attended. The White Horse Inn was popular with the Squadron and occasionally they would get a case of Canadian Club which would attract quite a crowd for a party.
activities for the squadron were mostly escort, off the coast, and intruder
later moved to Stapleford Tawney,
a small field with a grass runway that had a steep slope, near
squadron personnel were changing so fast it was difficult to keep track. A number of the original members were
posted to other units and there were many new faces. One
day in September, 1941, I received the depressing news that my posting had
arrived and I would be going to R.N. Air Station at Lee-on-Solent,
When I arrived at R.N.A.S., they told me that a new radio school was being formed in about three months time and in the meantime I was to be instructing radiomen in a Vultee Vengeance dive bomber squadron. I became acquainted with three other R.A.F. N.C.O.s who had arrived and were also on temporary assignments.
Time passed fast enough with our radio classes and an occasional flight with the squadron. The training flights consisted of spotting a dummy periscope on the end of a long cable, towed by a launch, and the whole squadron going down in a dive and releasing small practice bombs. It was fun until the pull-out at the bottom of the dive, where I would black out for a few seconds. Sitting in the rear seat, I had a good view of the whole show, up to that point!
After this assignment was finished I went over to the school and helped set up the equipment and organize my notes. I knew someone in the photo lab. and arranged to have circuit schematics and photos of the various types of radios and these were compiled into an information packet for each student. It saved many hours of copying from the blackboard. Our first class consisted of thirty artificers who had completed a preliminary course on radio theory. They also had to learn to send and receive the Morse code during this course, which was somewhat stressful at times.
At last the course was finished and everyone felt relieved and happy.
The next class was a surprise. About thirty W.R.E.N.s. These young ladies had survived their electronic course at London Tech. and were keen to learn. I now had the rank of sergeant instructor. Part of the final exam was for groups of three to install a radio in a Swordfish aircraft. Togged out in bell-bottoms and flying gear complete with bulky parachute, they would fly about the countryside and establish radio contact with another group at the school. Several classes of Wrens completed the course and we were pleased to hear later that some were promoted to C.P.O.s and were in charge of radio shops. They had been good students and were good company at the weekly dances at the Lee Tower Ballroom.
were a little closer to the action at Lee-on-Solent
due to the proximity of
We were issued bicycles to get around and they were all in a neglected state of repair. We used them to go into the village at night to visit the pub or to attend a dance. The local constable would be waiting with his bicycle to pounce on any unfortunate person who was breaking the law - improperly shaded light, riding two on a bike or numerous other infractions. The only difficulty was that if his quarry chose to run for it, he had little hope of catching them. His cycle had a heavy, high frame and the gearing was too high. This running battle was enjoyed by everyone and the constable had his revenge when he actually caught someone. They went before the Magistrate and paid a stiff fine.
summer evening I went to
was drawing to an end and several classes had completed their courses, when I
had an opportunity to apply for a commission. It meant accepting more responsibility,
which I was willing to do, but I thought it would broaden my service experience
and it was time I took the plunge.
I had the endorsement of my C.O. and my first interview was with the
Station Commander. At the appointed
time I was ushered into his office.
He sat behind a huge mahogany desk and it seemed he had gold braid from
wrist to elbow. I could see he was
Royal Navy through and through but he put me at ease and asked me a number of
questions. He was curious to know
why I had left
I believe at least one was in the Signals Branch and one of them in the Medical (probably a psychologist!). This was question and answer time - and how! I came out of there feeling wrung out, but relieved it was over. I returned to Lee-on-Solent on the electric train which I enjoyed very much because it was possible to stick one's head out of the window without getting a cinder in the eye.
day one of the pilots was making a run down to Yeovil
On leaving we taxied to the far end of the pasture to get a long run into the wind, but it was uphill with a stone wall at the far end. I guess we both prayed a little, lifting off with just feet to spare, over the stone wall. Fading below, our reception committee was now a group of white faces and waving arms; then they were gone in the mist.
landed at the RNAS in
Our flight back was almost routine compared to our previous one and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience. About two weeks after the Selection Board interview, a signal arrived instructing me to report to Cranwell (September '42') for a technical signals course. When I arrived, I met a number of other fellows who were to be my class mates for the next three months and we were billeted in wooden huts of twenty to each room, dormitory style. There was a heater at each end of the room which we would soon learn to appreciate as the weather grew colder. We did have plenty of hot water for our showers - one of those luxuries of wartime.
always seemed cold at Cranwell. The East wind off the
It was interesting, meeting people at Cranwell who had been working in different areas in the Signals branch. There were a number of air-crew who had completed their flying tour and others who had come from stations all over the country. We finished the course around Christmas, 1942. We had a wonderful Christmas dinner, served by our officers and instructors.
After New Year's, January, 1943, we moved to Cosford for the Admin. Course where we joined groups from other branches of the service. Our first task was to remove all our badges of rank from our uniforms to be replaced with a white flash on our hats. We were all cadets now with mixed feelings as we put away our old stripes and all the memories.
days passed rapidly as we were put through our paces learning the new
procedures; Customs of the Service, how to conduct a parade, amongst other
necessary skills. After our final
exams, the tailors from
we were at Cosford, I visited the
new uniforms arrived and we received our postings in March of '43'. My destination was a sector operations
centre at Atcham, a picturesque spot in a wood in
I reported to my superior, F/Lt. W. Sykes and during the next week he took me around and introduced me to everyone and explained the duties and routines.
Our domestic site was about a mile away and we were all issued bicycles. It was May, and a very pleasant run to and from the "Ops room" each day. Across the road from us was an airfield used by the American Air Force as an advanced fighter-training base. They were flying Thunderbolt aircraft which had a spectacular performance. We visited back and forth and had some hilarious parties. We sometimes went flying with them in their liaison aircraft and they had a Miles Master in which they had installed a twin row Wasp radial engine, which was something different, and a real thrill to fly.
Nearby was a small hill called The Wrekin; a notable landmark in the area. Sometimes, when we had time off, a number of us would hike to the top and enjoy the view. I believe several counties could be seen on a clear day. It was fun to hedge-hop over the top too, when Lt. Rafaels took me along for a flight.
The army anti-aircraft control people shared our Ops Room and had their own plotting table and telephone lines to their searchlight, radar and A.A. batteries. From time to time one of our Air Force planes would fly over their sector at night to calibrate their (flack) radar.
I managed to go along as an observer one night and it was interesting. It was summer and double daylight saving time. We took off about It was just getting dark on the ground, but as we climbed we were able to see the edge of the sun on the horizon and were bathed in it's rosy glow. I was able to talk with and get directions from our Ops. Room and conditions were so good I could hear them breathing into the microphone.
Suddenly we were caught in a cone of searchlights and were blinded by the glare. The pilot took evasive action and we slipped off into the darkness. A few minutes later we were suddenly caught again. We played this cat and mouse game for some time at around 10,000 feet. Eventually we received word that the exercise was over and we could return to base.
Sometimes on a warm summer evening we would cycle down to an old pub by the river. It was an ancient building of thick stone walls and inside the entrance was a low door and a flight of stone steps that curved down to a bar below. We usually took our pints and went out on the lawn which extended down to the river.
It was a relaxing atmosphere. There was an interesting view of the stone bridge over the river, and across the road an estate, with sheep grazing in a park-like setting.
As dusk came, we slowly cycled back in the cool of the night, the air fragrant with hay from the farms. It was too good to last!
August, 1943, my overseas posting came through, and I was off again to the
overseas transit station near
fifty of us were put aboard a
The navy spooked us once opening up with their flak batteries - for practice!
When we went through the Straits of Gibraltar, I thought, 'Aha, I've been this way before, it looks quite familiar.' I felt like an old sweat pukka sahib for a moment. It was getting so warm that a number of us slept on the open deck at night. We thought that if we were attacked, at least we would know what was happening. Our escort ships dropped depth charges at times, which thumped our ears a little.
we passed through the
During our voyage we were astonished to see a trail of pith helmets floating in our wake. Evidently many other people shared my opinion of these articles. The Australian Bush hat was more practical and was quickly adopted by all ranks where permitted. Another item worth mentioning was desert boots made of suede with crepe soles and leather inner soles. They were comfortable and cool and I wish they had been standard issue or at least optional.
could smell land I believe, before it was sighted. As we approached
We went through the hustle and bustle of disembarking and were billeted at a transit camp. We were soon introduced to a new cuisine; curry dishes and lots of hot spices, mango, chutney, etc.
first impression on arrival in
were impressed with the business section of
posting was to 113 Hurricane Squadron, St. Thomas Mount,
The landscape at St. Thomas Mount reminded me of pictures of Mars; scattered boulders of various size, of a reddish-brown colour and a few palm trees. Our facilities at the airfield were basic. Most of the huts were built on a concrete floor and were framed with bamboo poles covered with panels of split bamboo. The roofs were thatched with rice straw which harbored a multitude of lizards, spiders and other creeping things. Our beds were called charpoys. A wooden frame, criss-crossed with rope which was to become one of the familiar furnishings. A high frame above and around the bed supported a mosquito net.
The squadron I was joining, 113, had recently converted from Bristol Blenheim aircraft and our pilots were undergoing familiarization training during our stay at this station. When the squadron was flying, a small group of us who were non-flying types, represented the support branches; the Adjutant, Medical officer, Engineering and Signals. I can't remember if we had Intelligence and Meteorology Officers at this time but they were usually at Wing or Group H.Q.s.
We had a tragic accident during this period. One of our pilots, a popular Irish chap, took off one morning and for some reason executed a roll after take-off. His engine cut out and the aircraft stalled and crashed. We were all saddened by his death.
received word, November, 1943, that we were going to move to Dimapur which was in east
had to trans-ship to a river steamer when we crossed the
Dimapur looked fairly flat and well wooded and we were told that in an area to the southwest of us, the rainfall was about 400 inches a year. Our airfield was a place called Dudkundi and the airstrip was built on an old dry river bed that had been raised a few feet by bringing in the earth and gravel by local labour. The camp was well constructed by East Africa Army Engineers.
Mess radio was a Phillips all-wave type designed to operate on the 230 volt
mains, which was not available, so I converted it to 6 volts with a dynamiter
so we could operate on a car battery.
One evening Prime Minister Winston Churchill was making an important
Another caper that broke the monotony was the outhouse fire. Flies are a constant problem around a camp and it was the practice before entering the "throne room", to put a match to a ball of newspaper and drop it down the 12-inch diameter hole into the twenty-foot-deep pit. The outhouses were state of the art; a concrete pad and a teak thunder box surrounded with a thatched structure. One day after lunch I was chatting with the Medical Officer and he mentioned the fly problem. I suggested that some 100 octane gasoline would create enough fumes to banish the flies for some time. Later that evening I approached our outhouse carried out the ritual of lighting the ball of newspaper and dropped it down the hole.
There was a muffled rumbling and suddenly a shaft of flame shot out of the thunder box. I reeled backwards out of the door, my ceremonial cap smoking and the thatch of the outhouse in flames. People came running with fire extinguishers and soon put out the blaze. There was much laughter. The Medical Officer offered his apologies for neglecting to tell me he had followed my suggestion and had sent a crew around that afternoon to pour 100 octane gas down all the bore holes. Later on, when I joined 221 Group, my notoriety had preceded me and after reporting in and introducing myself someone said, "Aren't you the chap who set fire to the outhouse?" (and some have greatness thrust upon them).
One day someone caught a python. It was about twenty feet long. A large lump about halfway along its length indicated it had eaten recently. Estimates by those present put the lump at about the size of a pig or dog. We were warned about moving through grassy areas as there were cobras. The station master had a small snake in a jar. it was about eight inches long and was known as a Krait. We were told that it was as deadly as a cobra. Other nasty little creatures included the scorpion and we were always on the look out for these and kraits.
a precipitous mountain road to the south of us, was the
The road twisted and turned like a roller-coaster and indeed we saw the wreckage of numerous trucks far below. We reached Kohima, the site of an Army hospital and rest camp. It was much cooler at that altitude and it must have been a welcome break for people spending time there.
wasn't many months after, that a Japanese column penetrated that area and
attacked the garrison at Kohima. It was a real drag-out battle and we
heard that at one time only the tennis courts separated the lines. It was a real bloody fight at close
quarters. It has been well
documented in several post-war books on the
The next morning I reported to the Chief Signals Officer, W/Commander Robinson, who explained my duties and took me around the station and introduced me to everyone. We were located at the base of a small hill about 800 feet high. The transmitting station was located, with the power plant, out on the flat ground, about a half mile from H.Q. which was about 50 yds. up the side of the hill. The hillside was quite steep and densely wooded. A road ran around the perimeter of the hill and in front lay the flat land of the valley; mostly rice fields.
The nearest airfield was about two miles to the north around the corner of a hill. Our defense against air attack consisted of a number of Bofors guns around the area. Three shots would be fired to warn us of an attack. We had a number of Hurricane fighter squadrons at several airfields in the valley and we felt reasonably secure.
However, one day we were standing around outside when we saw what we thought was a formation of five DC-3s at 1,500 feet, heading for the airfield. When they were over the airfield, they dropped a few small bombs and fired their machine guns. We later learned a bullet had gone through an airfield transmitter and that one of raiders had been shot down by a Hurricane. Occasionally there were nuisance raids by Zero fighters, usually around daybreak.
had a sandbagged gun position a little farther up the hill and a Bren gun. Big
deal! However it helped our morale
considerably. I remember during one
raid there was a tremendous bang nearby and at first I thought it might have
been a small bomb but it turned out to be Capt. Rogers of Air Formation
Signals, who had obtained one of the early anti-tank rifles. It fired a smallish armor-piercing
bullet but had an enormous propellant charge. When he fired it, we were quite
The battle with the Japanese was going badly for us at this time. They had penetrated to Kohima and had cut the other roads to the valley. We were being supplied by air, mostly by Canadian DC-3 transport squadrons [ R.C.A.F. Squadrons 435 and 436] They brought in most of our food, ammunition and fuel and took out the wounded. From our location we could see the shell bursts and hear the sound of the battle at the north end of the valley. There was some concern that Japanese raiding parties would infiltrate to the hill behind us, so bunkers were established on the ridge and we were in contact by telephone and radio.
As a precaution, sand bags were stacked around the buildings and barb wire place here and there. The valley was under siege by this time, but our routine remained practically the same. I remember sleeping with a loaded revolver under my pillow during this period. We were all taking an anti-malaria drug; a yellow tablet somewhat smaller than an aspirin, that went by the name of Mepacrine. After taking it for a few weeks, our complexions became quite oriental.
Entertainment was limited of course, but on one occasion Noel Coward flew in and entertained us for several hours. Our morale was given a boost on another occasion when Lord Louis Mountbatten flew in to give us a pep talk shortly after he had been appointed C in C of South East Asia Command.
I had an interesting experience one day when Garry a pilot friend of mine was instructed to ferry a Tiger Moth, the A.O.C.s personal aircraft, from an airfield at the south end of the valley to our local airfield. He asked me if I wanted to come along for the ride and of course I was delighted. We arranged a ride down in a Jeep and were soon airborne and on our way to Group. The airstrip at Group was situated at the side of a hill and was noted for a brisk cross-wind. No problem for a heavy service machine, but for a light aircraft, well... As we made our approach our drift to the right became alarming and we were heading straight for the bamboo tower. Two figures bailed out of the tower and down the ladder. Garry opened the throttle and saved us from disaster. We went around again, and made our approach, this time more aware of the strength of the cross-wind. We still landed on one wheel with one wing tip perilously close to the ground and I thought for a minute we were going to flip over. After turning the aircraft over to the ground crew, we headed back to the Mess and Garry said: "You know, if we had bent the A.O.C. aircraft, we would be in an awkward position." We reasoned a miss was as good as a mile and it was fun!
one time there I was in hospital with an ear infection and just after that
hepatitis and so I was entitled to two weeks leave. I had a pass to
I stayed at the Grand Hotel that was taken over by the military for us. It was a good stopping off place to get a good meal and get ready for the next leg of the journey.
took the train from
we arrived at
was billeted with a Dutch family.
In their garden were roses and many of the flowers you would see growing
was a roller skating rink that was very popular. You could rent ponies and by taking a
trail in the early morning you had a fair view of
About this time the military realized the importance of cooperation between the Army and the Airforce. This was something the Germans had been doing for years of course and we had just got around to it. To demonstrate the power of an air strike, a target area was laid out one day, not far from headquarters and some bombers called in, followed by fighter-bombers. They blew a lot of craters in the ground. They put on quite a fireworks display. We were fairly close so got a bird's-eye-view of the whole thing. This rehearsal was in preparation for a big operation planned down at a place called Gangaw, about 160 miles or so south of Imphal, where the Japanese had a communications centre and quite a concentration of transport and repair facilities. I was supernumerary at this time, pending posting to Comilla Signals and so the C.S.O. asked me to go along with Garry who had completed his tour. He was going along as airforce liaison and I was going along to assist him and to check out a new VHF transceiver. We took off in a gypsy moth that had been converted to an ambulance plane. The rear cockpit turtle back was hinged to allow the placement of a stretcher. We stuffed in all our kit and in I climbed. My window was a hole about two inches in diameter covered with a piece of plexiglass. We flew behind another chap, who led us down there. Eventually we arrived at our paddy field destination and landed. We were very close to the Jap front line. Immediately people rushed out from the underbrush and dragged us into a position concealed with branches. Here we were introduced to the army commander.
The army had little bivouacs set up, just crude little shacks draped with old supply parachutes. That night we had a good time at a party in the Mess, which was also constructed of bamboo poles and supply parachutes. During the night I had to get up to answer natures call. Suddenly, in the darkness, a Gurkha guard challenged me with bayonet not far from my throat. I didn't know the password, but asked him to take me to the Duty Officer. We got it squared away, but I had quite a fright for a few minutes.
Later in the night it started to rain. I put a groundsheet over the four poles that supported my mosquito net and settled back to enjoy a bottle of brandy that had been "dropped" that afternoon amongst the other stuff. I sat there and sipped my brandy until I felt sleepy and dozed off. The next morning a party from headquarters took us on reconnaissance. We crossed the river in a native boat then marched through the jungle quite a distance and eventually came to a river where they had an observation post. On the opposite bank the Japanese had a lone observer. He had some kind of a foxhole there and had constructed a sort of chaise lounge. He would lie out there with his binoculars waiting for aircraft to come over and then scuttle back to his dugout evidently to telephone his headquarters. The army chaps told us they had decided to have some fun with this Jap. One of the tricks they played on him was to conceal themselves and when he went off to his dugout to telephone, they slipped over and pinched his chair, hid it in the brush, and then retired without being detected. It was just one of the things they did to pass the time while they were getting set up for this operation; [the strike on the Japanese communication centre].
The position from which we would be observing the strike was a platform the army had built for us, high up in a tree. From this excellent viewpoint we could see the target area in the distance, through the haze over the paddy fields.
The day arrived when the weather was suitable for the operation. We took up our positions in the tree. Below us was the Army Colonel and his staff and the field telephones and equipment. We switched on our transceiver as the time approached for the strike. A small cloud of smoke came out of the back of the transceiver. I quickly ripped the cover off and looked inside. The plug and socket were made of pressed paper plastic, the stuff we used to jokingly call CRAPITE; unsuitable for tropical conditions. It wasn't damp-proof.
The strike began with a regimental shoot with their field guns over our heads, laying on a barrage. I made some quick repairs to the transceiver and switched on just in time to hear the first air section calling us for the final approval to go ahead. We checked with the Colonel below and told them to go ahead, giving them the co-ordinates on the map. The heavy bombers came in quite high and dropped their load on the target. We could feel the concussions. The tree branches rustled and our clothes flapped about us as the shock waves reached us. It was quite an experience being that close to a big strike. Following this came the fighter-bombers shooting up specific targets called in by the army on the spot. During this shoot up by the Hurricane fighter bombers there was some confusion due to the co-ordinates on the map or something. As a result some of the firing and the bombs came quite close to our own troops. Needless to say we got an excited call: "LAY OFF!" Below us the colonel jumped up and down crying out, "CALL THEM OFF! SEND THEM HOME, SEND THEM HOME!" which we did. About this time the infantry went in. We could hear the automatic fire and mortar rounds. I gathered from the reports that came in that it was a highly successful operation. I am sure the army appreciated the help they received from the airforce.
We flew back to headquarters, to 221 Group. There was a photo rekky going out and I went along as a photographer. We had the old Fairchild F27 (I think) camera, a big cumbersome thing. I opened the side of the aircraft. It was like a Piper Cub. You raise the door up and it clips on to the strut, so that you have a good view from the side. We took some pictures. It was very interesting. We could see the area from a different viewpoint. Our people had got their hands on some Japanese unused newsreel film 35mm. It was just black and white but they were cutting it up and handing it out. A lot of us had cameras but no film. We were able to take personal pictures at last. It was an unexpected dividend from the operation. Things were now going pretty well in this theatre. A lot of captured material was coming back. One trophy we had up in the Mess was a Japanese anti-tank gun, small calibre. It was a little larger than the 20 mm., but quite an effective weapon. New Year's was approaching so we arranged a fireworks display, sort of a victory celebration for New Year's night. We got our hands on a lot of flares, and black Bakelite practice grenades, and a lot of Japanese ammo, mortars and various things. We even concocted a shell which we rammed in the breach of this anti-tank gun and fired it. We were like schoolboys at the time, playing with new toys. It was terrific.
night of the party,
was quite a boisterous affair.
Everyone dressed up in their uniforms. I remember Captain Rogers in his Sam
Brown, all polished, down at the firing point where they had a magneto
generator, for the set piece.
part of the "victory" celebration was an invitation to a party from
the local Rajah of Manipur State at Imphal. He had a fireworks display and a great
feast. Everybody had a good
time. It was a relief too, as we
anticipated an improvement in the food supply. Previous to this we had been living on
mostly dehydrated food brought in by the R.C.A.F. transport squadrons who did a
marvelous job of supplying the valley with food, gasoline and ammunition. They were a big factor in the success of
Built all around the brick house were deep verandahs another pleasant area in which to sit and try and keep cool. Behind the house was a large pond. For entertainment some nights we put a candle in a tin can and floated it out into the centre of the pond. Then we stood on the verandah and fired at it with our issue Smith and Wesson .38 revolvers. It was the only time we ever had any target practice. There was a shortage of .38 ammunition. The .38 had a rim fitted which held the round in place in the chamber. There was plenty of Sten gun ammo which was rimless and by making a small disk, a clip, we were able to use this 9 mm ammunition. The only difficulty was, I think the rounds were slightly larger than the standard .38 and they fouled up the barrels. I remember one night while I was firing there was suddenly a loud whistle. A round had jammed in the barrel and the gas had just blown out between the chamber and the barrel. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had heard that with a field piece sometimes they will put another charge in and blow it out. Well I guess I wasn't thinking at the time. I put a another bullet up behind it and fired. Fortunately it cleared. The armorer told me later it could have blown up in my face. I had a near shave and resolved never to do such a thing again.
There was a long room in the Law Courts that held our Receiving Section. We had about 20 receivers and operators on a shift. There was the Traffic Room adjoining and the codes and ciphers, and then the Signals Office.
I arrived 224 Group were packing up to go to
At Comilla during the Monsoon Season, we had the usual torrents of rain, wind, thunder and lightning. Our poles, supporting the keying lines, between Comilla and our transmitting site, were stuck in soft mud and were always falling over. We needed a repair crew out there all the time.
were overjoyed when we heard the news of the Normandy Landing,
and the use of the Atom bomb against
wasn't unhappy at all to board the train in
arrived back in
----- Andy Southall
Copyright 2007 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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