The Biggs' Boys

(hosted Online by the Justin Museum of Military History)

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

THE BOY WHO STARTED IT ALL


 

          At last the day came to depart.  It was April 4, 1937.  At this time the Spanish Civil War was being fought, and Germany and Italy were re-arming. 

 

          I 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 Vancouver, I said farewell to my friends at dockside.  My parents accompanied me to Vancouver and saw me off on the Canadian National Railway train bound for the east. 


 

          The 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 Rockies behind and moved across the flatlands of the prairies.  It was not quite Spring and the landscape was quite drab.  The only break was the occasional small town and grain elevator.  I met two young aircraft engineers on the train who were going to Bristol to work for a British Aircraft Company.  They were interesting fellows and we passed the time chatting about everything under the sun, and what life would be like in Britain. 

 

          The first long stop was Montreal, where I had the luxury of a haircut and a professional shave and then on to Halifax where I boarded the S.S. Ascania on April 10.  The trip across the Atlantic was fairly smooth and during the voyage I had plenty of time to reflect on the events that now had me on my way to the Royal Air Force.  

 

          I 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 Atlantic and new records in aviation were being announced almost daily. 

 

          The centre for flying activities in Victoria, British Columbia, during the 1930's was Lansdowne airfield, which is now a residential area and school.  Any week-end we could see our local aviators in action.  Two names that come to mind are Cecil and Ernest Eve.  They owned a car dealership in Victoria and were avid aviation buffs. 

 

         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.

 

          During 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 Britain in the Air Ministry. 

 

          A few weeks later he contacted me and gave me the details.  I had a general medical examination in Victoria, which included a basic color vision test of recognizing three dots of red, blue and green.  There was no assurance I would be accepted in London until I successfully passed their examination.  So, now here I was on the mid Atlantic and about to arrive in the United Kingdom.  

 

          On docking at Southampton I was met by an Air Ministry representative.  I entrained for London where I found accommodation.  The next day I reported to the Air Ministry examination centre to take my test and medical examination.

 

          All 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 April 21, 1937 I commenced my basic training (musketry drill, learning how to march, salute etc.) at Uxbridge.  It was arduous.  The instructors kept us going around the clock, and there were organized games to take care of leisure time.  Towards the end of our training some of us were surprised to hear that we were going to Hendon for a week to help guard the Air Display.  We had ringside seats and had a wonderful time.  An interesting part of the display was a number of WW1 aircraft which flew in mock combat - dog fighting with blank ammo.

 

          On completion of basic training, I was posted to Henlow, an old WW1 airfield, with excellent facilities located next to the Electrical School.  We were taken on a tour and were delighted to see parts of aircraft and Rolls-Royce engines displayed.  

 

          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 6 a.m.  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 9 a.m., until 5 p.m 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.

 

          Another 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 Engineering School to maintain their airmanship etc.  There were often opportunities on a Saturday morning to go along as a passenger.  This gave me a break from the school routine and a chance to see the countryside.  On one occasion I accompanied a pilot in an Avro Tutor, who planned to practice approaches.   After completing a few, he called on the intercom. and said he was going to try some steep "S" turns to lose altitude on the next approach.  We completed a number of turns and straightened out before crossing a high metal fence around the perimeter.  I thought we were rather low as we passed over the fence and right ahead was a huge pile of dirt from an excavation for some fuel tanks.  We seemed to settle a little and suddenly there was a bump and we bounced into the air and settled on to the ground with a bang, skidding along in a cloud of dust.  After the aircraft stopped skidding we just sat there in a sort of daze.  The pilot asked, "Are you okay?" and I replied, "Yes, I believe so", while I felt my body all over to make sure my limbs were intact. 

 

          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 Cambridge.  The village of Duxford was still old-world.  It had an operating water wheel and a mill which was used to grind grain in the Fall.  The old church, I believe was built in the 17th century - it had the date engraved over the door.  The roof was covered with sheet lead (did they anticipate the atomic age?)  The village pub looked like the rest of the houses.  A room with tables and chairs but no bar.  When a pint was ordered, the landlord opened a trapdoor and descended a ladder to the cellar where he filled a pitcher from a barrel.

 

          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.

 

          On 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; Aden that sun-baked rock on the Red Sea, or the hostile natives on the Northwest Frontier!  

 

          I 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 in London and report to the depot ship, which would be leaving in a few days time.

 

          I 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 of Dover were fading in the distance.  After that, the first land we saw was the north coast of Spain and then we were through the Straits of Gibraltar.  As we proceeded along the coast of Africa we could see the Atlas mountains and a plume of cloud forming and condensing at the east end.  Our first stop was Malta where we had shore leave.  We went swimming and toured the sights like other tourists.  We went through the museum where they had weapons from the Crusades.  We noted that the suits of armour looked large enough for a person about five foot tall and there were holes and large dents in some of them indicating the wearers had come to a violent end.

 

          At last we arrived in Alexandria and dropped anchor in the middle of the harbour.  It was a large harbour protected by a long breakwater and dominated by Ras-el-Tin Palace.  The flying boats were anchored around us, each some distance apart.  To get to and from the aircraft we had to use rope ladders from a boom off our ship, down to the high speed launches.  I wish I had been able to take movies of those first efforts to use the ladders.  People were hanging by arms and legs while N.C.O.s yelled instructions. 

 

          Our work day began at dawn and ended at 1 p.m.  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. 

 

          Reading was high on the list for our leisure time, also swimming.  We could get a native dhow (or was it falluca?) to take us to a place called Agumi beach, where we could wade out a quarter of a mile on hard white sand.  The water was so salty it was easy to float without effort.  One week-end a party of us went to Cairo to see the sights.  After being impressed by the artifacts in the museum we went out to see the Pyramids.  The guide took us on a tour of the inside of one at Gizah.  We had to ride camels out there.  That one ride was enough!

 

          The aircraft to which I was assigned had a Canadian skipper F/O Ellis from Ontario and he would sometimes tell us of his adventures; hard rock mining in the early days.  We had some interesting flights to different parts of the Middle East, and at times dropped depth charges on practice targets. 

 

          One day, at lunch time we heard on the radio that Great Britain had declared war on Germany (September, 1939), and we received orders to pack up and return to Pembroke Dock.  We left a skeleton crew with the aircraft and the rest of us packed our gear. 

 

          We were hoisted aboard the cruiser Shropshire and set sail that very evening.  We ran into heavy weather after a day out and everyone was feeling the effects.  A few days later we arrived at Gibraltar, waited there a day or so and proceeded to Marseilles where we were billeted at a French military base.  

 

          While arrangements were made for a train to take us to Paris we had two days to do some sight-seeing.  We had some wonderful meals at the restaurants where the menus were as large as newspapers.  French airforce personnel escorted us around to see the sights and when we boarded the train they placed a large barrel of red wine at the end of the corridor to sustain us on our journey.   The ones who had over-indulged in the wine were hoisted without ceremony into the luggage racks above the seat. 

 

          One arrival at the Paris station we were surprised to see tour buses decorated with British and French flags.  They drove us around Paris.  Everywhere we went the people were cheering us.  There was much hugging and kissing.  We were puzzled by this exceedingly warm welcome until someone in our party said, "Oh no! They think we have come over to help them fight the Germans."  We thought it prudent not to mention that we were merely passing through on our way to England.  The French airforce hosted us at their local depot and guides were arranged to show us the town.  The guide for our group had been a teacher at a Scottish school and was well informed. 

 

          We 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 Boulogne and then by boat to Harwich. 

 

         This was followed by a dreary train ride to Pembroke Dock - it was raining. 

 

          After our squadron aircraft arrived from Egypt we soon settled into a routine again.  In addition to the aircraft there were two Link trainers that required my attention and I was kept busy.  A number of flashing neon beacons were located around the country to aid aircraft in finding their way home on dark nights.   They were generally located at remote spots usually on a hill-top.  These sites were manned by a crew of two who were rotated every week.  Eventually it was my turn and we took over from the previous crew.  The beacon was like a lighthouse mounted on a heavy trailer which also contained the engine-driven generator.  The light flashed morse code characters according to its location.  We were on stand-down most of the time and had a tent with two camp beds, a kerosene heater and a field telephone connected to HQ.  When an aircraft was lost or requested help by radio, we received the order to illuminate, and my colleague would start the engine and then I switched on the light.  Big deal!  Our main concern was that we might attract an enemy aircraft which would no doubt take great delight in shooting us up.

 

          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. 

 

          In 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 France, hoping to stop the German push into France.  It was decided by authorities (but opposed by the Air Ministry) to send more fighter squadrons to France. 

 

          June 1, 1940, we were alerted to proceed to Biggin Hill.  There we awaited further orders and spent our time sorting out our equipment.  Adjoining the airfield was an estate of park-like land where some ladies had set up a café for the airfield personnel.  On the day we set out for France a number of us went over for the most delicious ham and tomato sandwiches and Tizer, a popular soft drink.  We sat with our backs against the fir trees and speculated our future activities in France.  I think it was June 8th, 1940, a beautiful warm summer day and we were anxious to get going.  The night before we had loaded three aircraft; two Bristol Bombays and a Handley-Page Harrow; obsolete bombers later used as transports.

 

          Before 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 Le Mans.

 

          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.

 

          Le Mans was a large modern air terminal with huge reinforced concrete hangars in the shape of a mushroom.  When we landed everyone tumbled out of the fuselage door looking green and grumpy.  It had been so hot and confining that many had been air-sick and I felt fortunate but guilty.  We received orders to fly to Chateau D' Un, which was southwest of Paris.  It was a much shorter flight over fields of grain; more bumpy air. 

 

          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. 

 

          We headed south towards the Loire River and the first town we reached was Ancenis.  We slept in the trucks and under hedges that night and the next morning we washed and freshened up in the river.  The only food we had in our truck was a few cans of condensed soup which we ate cold out of the can.  We made a brief stop at a café where we all ordered bacon and eggs.  We were in a hurry to get away so we negotiated with the proprietor to buy the plates and cutlery as well.  We headed west along the Loire and arrived at Nantes airfield which was an important maintenance base.  We slept in tents on the airfield that night and had a meal there.  Rumours were flying about the swift German advance and our chances of getting back to England.  There seemed to be lack of direction and much confusion about our next move which I suppose was normal in a situation like this.  The thought uppermost in my mind was not to be taken prisoner.  I remember getting a map and a parachute which I used as a pillow that night.  I thought if the worst happened and there were no orders, I might borrow one of the many aircraft parked around the field.  Unfortunately most of the aircraft were unserviceable and were being smashed up by demolition crews.  We heard that the machine tools in the shops suffered the same fate.

 

          We 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 Nantes.  Around midday it was getting pretty warm, and as we marched there was the occasional thud, as someone jettisoned some kit to lighten his load.  Finally, June 14, we arrived at St. Nazaire, dog-tired.  We took shelter in warehouses on the docks and were we glad they were constructed of stone when German aircraft attacked us.

 

          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 10 a.m. on June 16th (1940) in the middle of yet another air-raid. 

 

          We heard later that our pilots had shot down some of the raiders.  We reached Falmouth (England) two days later, and that same evening had hot showers, a good meal and slept in a gymnasium.  I thought I could sleep forever. 

         

          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. 

 

          One 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 London area. 

 

          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. 

 

          We 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 London area.  The Battle of Britain was in progress and our pilots were having a successful time in dealing with the enemy.  We were delighted and encouraged with this change of fortune and enjoyed the feeling of success at last.

         

          When the Battle was over (late September) the squadron moved to Martlesham Heath  which was on the east coast north of Harwich.  The radio party was billeted in a two- storey house, which had previously been the married quarters for the station C.O.  We used one room upstairs for servicing the radios and the rest were shared for billets.  We had to use the fireplaces for heating and we went through a particularly cold winter.  The plumbing froze for about a week and we had to thaw the outside drainpipe with a blowtorch. 

 

          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. 

 

          One of the more pleasant sounds at Martlesham was our midday jazz concert by a group of musicians in the R.A.F. who had played in London dance bands in peace time.  I believe it improved our morale more than anything else at that time.

 

           Our weekly treat was a trip to Ipswich for a movie and dinner at a restaurant where there was a ladies string quartet to entertain with selections from Gilbert & Sullivan. 

 

          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.

         

          Flying activities for the squadron were mostly escort, off the coast, and intruder raids into France, in addition to intercepting enemy raids.  Our losses were particularly high at this period and we lost a number of our pilots, which had a depressing effect on the lads.  The day to day flying activities and extracts from the pilot reports are well documented in the book 242 SQUADRON, THE CANADIAN YEARS, by Hugh Halliday.

 

          We later moved to Stapleford Tawney, a small field with a grass runway that had a steep slope, near Epping Forest.  We were sleeping in wooden huts and at night during the air-raids, we were shaken up quite a bit.  There was a particularly loud blast one night and I'm convinced the hut moved sideways on its foundations.  There were a number of anti-aircraft batteries on railway cars that would run back and forth along the railway next to our camp.  I think the noise they made was worse than the enemy bombs.  At the top of the rise next to the field was the manor house, used as Squadron H.Q. and Officers' Mess.  One morning, after a raid the previous night, a land mine was seen hanging by its parachute from a tree next to the building.  Of course everyone was in a great twitter in case the thing went off.  A bomb disposal squad came in and stacked sand bags around it and then it was defused much to our relief.

 


          The 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, near Portsmouth on the south coast.  I was disappointed in having to leave my good friends after all the adventures we had shared.

         

          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.

 

          We were a little closer to the action at Lee-on-Solent due to the proximity of Portsmouth naval base and an aircraft manufacturing plant (Short Bros.) on the Isle of Wight.  The raids on Portsmouth were the worst - mainly at night.  The flack from the ships and shore batteries was particularly heavy and we were showered with razor-sharp splinters at times.  For this reason and others, it was hazardous to be in the open during a raid.  One day we were at lunch when there was a tremendous bang and we all looked at one another, forks poised in mid-air.  It was a delayed action bomb that had buried itself in the sand.  These buried bombs didn't do that much damage but they certainly kept nerves on edge.  I hoped that we were using plenty of them too.  I witnessed a depressing incident one day when a group of us were down at the beach watching a new torpedo bomber going through its paces above the harbour.  A Gruman Martlet fighter was practicing attacks on the bomber when it overshot and cut off the tail of the bomber.  Both planes went into a dive and plunged into the water.  Boats went out immediately and searched the area but only a tire and a small tank were recovered at that time.

 

          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.

 

          One summer evening I went to Winchester where a dance was being held.  I was impressed by the Cathedral, both the architecture and beautiful stone work.

 

          Summer 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 Canada to join the R.A.F.  I told him I had been encouraged by Capt. Seymour-Biggs and that I had never regretted it.  My next interview was in London with an R.A.F. Selection Board - a group of six officers.

 

          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.

 

          One day one of the pilots was making a run down to Yeovil in Devon and asked me if I would like to go along for the ride.  It was a two-seater aircraft with a high wing and good for sightseeing.  The weather was less than desirable with low cloud and showers, but we set off and headed West.  As time went on the clouds got lower and eventually we couldn't recognize any landmarks - we were lost!  We hedge-hopped around for awhile, dodging hilltops and trees until the pilot saw a pasture on a hillside and we made an approach and landing.  We got out and stretched our legs, wondering where we were, when over a stone wall appeared several men armed with shotguns and various primitive but impressive weapons.  They were the local Home Guard and they asked for identification, no doubt suspecting that we might be spies.  After a few minutes, a constable arrived and we identified ourselves while someone went to the village to phone Lee-on-Solent to verify our identification.  After this was resolved tea was produced and we had a chat and found out where we were.  These people were so conscientious and eager to help, I felt real proud they were on our side in the war effort. 

 

          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. 

 

          We landed at the RNAS in Devon and while the pilot delivered his dispatches, I went over to a large farmhouse adjacent to the airfield.  I had been told that they served Devonshire Cream, which I was curious to taste, having heard so much of this delicacy.  It was delicious, especially after our flight.  It consisted of a large slice of toasted home-baked bread, spread with black currant jam and topped with thick cream.

 

          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. 

 

          It always seemed cold at Cranwell.  The East wind off the North Sea was always damp and penetrated the bones.  We kept our noses to the grindstone during the week with one class after another, as secrets of Radar and Codes & Ciphers were revealed to us.  We were also getting some experience in the air.  During this period, the weather had turned bitterly cold.  During one operating exercise, when we landed I was surprised to see so much ice on the wings which probably accounted for our heavy landing. 

 

          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. 

 

          The 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 London descended on us, and after selecting one to our liking, we were measured for our new uniforms.  This was indeed a luxury in the midst of war time clothing rationing, and was appreciated by all of us.

 

          While we were at Cosford, I visited the village of Tong where there was an old church dating back to the time of the Crusades or earlier.  In the centre of the church, before the altar, was a stone sepulcher on top of which was the stone effigy of a local Knight who had died in the Crusades.  Some of the pews were quite old, beautifully polished, solid English oak.  Another place I visited was Verconium, an old Roman town which was being uncovered.  A museum had been set up on the sight and it contained numerous artifacts of interest.

 

          Our 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 Shropshire.  The operations room was a reinforced concrete structure, almost buried in the ground.  One of our satellite stations was High Ercall.

 

          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 10 p.m.  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! 

 

          In August, 1943, my overseas posting came through, and I was off again to the overseas transit station near Blackpool - Kirton-in-Lindsey.  We were kitted out with tropical uniforms, including an enormous pith helmet that was so bulky it was almost impossible to stow.  So now we had two kits to look after adding to our difficulties when traveling!  We were billeted out for a few days at one of the seaside hotels while awaiting our transport.

 

          We went into Blackpool whenever possible on the electric train and took in a show and a meal.  We discovered a place where they served lobster, which at that time was quite reasonable and plentiful (also off the ration).

 

          About fifty of us were put aboard a Dutch East Indies cruise liner, with about two hundred nurses, and three hundred Army and R.A.F. personnel.  We left port and joined a convoy which included an aircraft carrier and other escort vessels.  Our duties were minimal.  A few parades and censoring mail, which I loathed, as it seemed such an invasion of privacy, even in wartime.  Everyone was aware of it of course, and the rules too, but it put a damper on the correspondence.

 

          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. 

 

          As we passed through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea the heat increased and it became extremely uncomfortable.  We heard through the grapevine that someone had died of heat exhaustion on one of the other ships, but it was not confirmed.     

 

          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.

 

          We could smell land I believe, before it was sighted.  As we approached Bombay, the off-shore breeze wafted a fragrance only those who have experienced it can define. 

 

          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. 

         

          Our first impression on arrival in Bombay was the extremes of wealth and poverty. The Taj Mahal Hotel we were told, was worth a visit, so we dropped in one evening for a drink.   On arrival at the hotel we saw Rolls-Royce limousines with silver fittings parked outside, no doubt belonging to Indian Princes.  We were ushered into the lounge where drinks were served and we had a chance to look around.  The decor was what you might call lavish Victorian.  There were many elegantly dressed Indian ladies wearing beautifully embroidered silk Saris of gold and silver thread.  It was quite an experience for us newly arrived types.  Almost like a scene out of Arabian Nights.  It gave us much to talk about for some time.

 

          We were impressed with the business section of Bombay, which was similar to any other large city in Europe.  The cinemas were air-conditioned, also the restaurants and hotels.  In sharp contrast, the older native parts of the city were depressed and most newcomers were shocked. 

 

          My posting was to 113 Hurricane Squadron, St. Thomas Mount, Madras.  The train journey was dreary to say the least.  We were forever stopping at small village stations where we were besieged by mobs of pedlars and beggars. 

 

          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.

 

          We received word, November, 1943, that we were going to move to Dimapur which was in east Bengal [Tigers and tea plantations!]  Christmas would soon be with us and we wondered if there would be time to observe the occasion.  The whole squadron with all the heavy equipment was loaded on a train and we set off across Bengal.  Christmas Day found us on a railway siding and we heard that a dinner was being prepared by our cooks and the Indian caterer.  The result was a bang-up Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.  I rigged up a short wave radio and we heard Christmas music and carols from the B.B.C. in London.  We had a minor problem for a while; no hot water for tea.  This was quickly solved by the caterer who flagged down the Bengal Mail express train and after discussion with the engineer they placed the large tea urn alongside the engine.  The engineer opened a valve in the cab and the urn was filled with boiling water.  Everyone watching from the train, let out a cheer.  The express chuffed away into the distance leaving us all content with our cups of tea. 

 

          We had to trans-ship to a river steamer when we crossed the Brahmaputra River as the line was narrow-gauge on the other side.  All our heavy crates and gear had to be stowed in the hold of the steamer, with the aid of an ancient crane, which took some time.

 

          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.

 

          The 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 speech from London.  I had permission to move the C.O.'s jeep over to the Mess where I clipped the cable from the Mess radio on to the battery.  Everyone was gathered to listen.   We enjoyed the speech and afterwards there was music and refreshments.  Later, the party broke up and I had to return the C.O.'s jeep to his quarters.  I hurriedly jumped in and drove off.  There was a crash and much shouting in the Mess.  I had forgotten to unclip the radio cable and had dragged the radio off the table.  This was embarrassing to say the least.  Everyone depended on the radio for news and entertainment and I was the guy who broke it.  I reported to the C.O. the next day and apologized and told him I would see that the radio was repaired.  Fortunately there was only a loose wire and it was quickly restored.  We all had a good laugh.

 

          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.  

 

          Over a precipitous mountain road to the south of us, was the valley of Imphal where 221 Group was located, together with a number of airfields.  At this time I was supernumerary at 113 Squadron and I was delighted when my posting came through to join 221 Group as Unit Signals Officer.  I was told by some of the old hands to be sure to get a British truck and driver for my journey over the mountains.  Apparently some of the Indian drivers had been known to use hashish and some had gone over the side. 

 

          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. 

 

          It 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 Burma campaign.  Leaving Kohima we began to descend to the Imphal Valley.  I now felt a little more at ease as it was getting dark.  We arrived at 221 Group H.Q. about 11 p.m.  Nearly everyone had gone to bed.  I contacted the Duty Officer and introduced myself.  He explained that "bashas" were being built but in the meantime personnel were under canvas.  We went to the tent area and entered my quarters; a marquee set up for four persons.  I hurried to unpack my camp kit and set up the mosquito net.  The heat from the Coleman lantern felt good as it was close to frost outside. 

 

          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.

 

          Signals 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 startled.  Rogers looked very much like the early pictures of Teddy Roosevelt; moustache and horn-rimmed glasses topped off with a bush hat.  He kept the Mess supplied with fish in an unusual way.  He would go out on to a lake in the valley, in a borrowed native boat and drop overboard cigarette cans full of explosive, then wait for the fish to surface after the explosion.  On one occasion however, the oar slipped out of the rowlock and he rolled over backwards.  He was unable to move from the area quickly enough and the charge went off under the boat.  The seams were opened and his craft began to sink.  He eventually swam to shore with his ears still ringing.  No fish that evening!

 

          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!

 

          At 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 Darjeeling, which was a real plum, because it was up quite high in the mountains, about 8,000 feet.  The climate was marvelous.  To get there I had to get a flight out of Imphal.  It happened to be an Anson, a twin-engine job.  We set off for Calcutta on the first leg of the journey.  The Monsoon Season had just started and we ran into an electrical storm.  We could see flashes all over the place.  We started to get St. Elmos fire around the prop tips and discharges off the trailing antenna reel.  Every time there was a big flash in any of the big cumulus clouds the automatic direction finder needle would swing momentarily over and point towards it.  It was a real mess, raining like mad.  I think we were lucky to get in and land at Dum Dum airfield, Calcutta. 

 

          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.

 

          We took the train from Calcutta, over the plains to the base of the Himalayas.  I am not sure but I think the name of the village was Kalgoorie.  It was here we transferred from a standard gauge to a narrow-gauge and a little train that took us up into the hills doubling back on itself through many twists and turns.  It was beautiful country with little streams gurgling over the rocks broken with waterfalls here and there. 

 

          When we arrived at Darjeeling itself it was quite a different appearance altogether from what I expected.  It was very clean and fresh.  More what you would expect to find in an European mountain village; permanent housing.  This was the place in peacetime, during the hot season, where all the civil servants sent their families. The Governor had a palace there with a golden dome on it.

 

          I was billeted with a Dutch family.  In their garden were roses and many of the flowers you would see growing in Britain.  It was really refreshing.  One of the main attractions was the Mt. Everest Hotel.  Of course they were entertaining the troops.  They had dinners and dances.  One colourful character in Darjeeling was the local playboy, the Sultan of Kutch Bahjar.  He was fairly young, a very entertaining fellow, and of course the life of the party everywhere.

 

          There 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 Mt. Everest as the sun came up.  That was quite a sight.  However, it was soon time to go back to Comilla.

 

          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. 

 

          The night of the party, Rogers had concocted this set piece, flares and everything, out in the paddy field in front of the Mess.  Of course everybody had been partying and drinking. 

 

          It 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.  Rogers was going out into the field to connect up the wires for it and said, "For God sake don't anybody touch that handle on the generator!"  So away he went out into the darkness, you could just see a flashlight bobbing about here and there.  Of course people were getting impatient.  Suddenly I hear this whirring noise and a terrific explosion and Rogers staggered back to us, his ears ringing and quite deafened by the concussion, and cussing everybody up and down for playing with the generator.  The explosion blew all the plaster [a sort of mixture of lime and mud or something, plastered over rattan work], off the wall of the Mess along the verandah, plus some other minor damage.  We sure heard about it the next morning of course.  We weren't "on the carpet" but there was severe disapproval from higher up for our caper.

 

          Another 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 the Burma operation.  In July of 1944 I was posted to Comilla Signals Centre and with rank of Flight Lieutenant was C.O. of 5755 and 5756 Mobile Signals Units.  I set out for Comilla, over the mountains and into the plains of Bengal, quite a distance east of Calcutta.  I immediately noticed a change in climate.  It was more humid and very uncomfortable.  Comilla was a small town with some permanent buildings which had been taken over by the army and airforce.  Our Signals Centre was located in the old Magistrates Courts.  Several of us were billeted in the magistrate's house, which was sheer luxury after living in the bamboo bashas in the bush.  However, humidity was high and we perspired constantly.  Welcome relief came from big ceiling fans which whirred softly.  

 

          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. 

 

          When I arrived 224 Group were packing up to go to Rangoon.  They were turning the whole place over to me.  I had to dash around.  I didn't have much time to get information from people before they left.  Fortunately I had a very good team.  Warrant Officer Wren was the senior officer there who took charge of Mynamati (I can't remember the spelling), about five miles to the north of us, where our transmitters were located.  They were all keyed by landlined telephone cables stretched across the paddy fields.  The transmitters were housed in a timber-framed building covered with corrugated iron.  We had a 75 KVA caterpillar diesel electric set and several smaller diesel electric sets to power the equipment.  Mynamati was our satellite to the main camp down in Comilla.  We handled quite a bit of traffic back and forth to the front areas and we had one teleprinter line which we had to share with a number of stations.  An on-going problem was to get enough time on this line.  Everyone was pushing their priorities of course; their signals, to try and get access to it.  Fortunately the American signals unit came into Comilla and we partially integrated.  A fellow joined us who had worked for a communication company in the United States and he was a real whiz on lines.   He also brought some equipment.  Something that helped us a lot, was a tape punch machine, enabling us to punch up all our traffic on tape and then as soon as we got our slot on the line we were able to rush it through at top speed. We used to trade with the Americans.  They had access to cigarettes and G.I. beer.  We had an allocation of three bottles of booze a month and I really only cared for the brandy, just for medicinal purposes.  They say it helps inhibit the malaria.  Whether that was true or not I don't know, but I never did get malaria.  Maybe it was the Mepacrine I was taking.  I use to trade the other two bottles for the beer because the heavily chlorinated water was terrible.  The beer was most welcome.  We had a lot of fun.  The Americans organized games and brought in the latest films to show in town.  All our people got a great charge out of that. 

 

          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.

 

          We were overjoyed when we heard the news of the Normandy Landing, and the use of the Atom bomb against Japan because we could see the end at last.  At this time things were hotting up (unrest) down in Malaya.  I had an opportunity to go down to Rangoon and continue on in the service but I elected for release.  I felt that now the war was over I'd had my run and there wasn't a lot I could do.  I didn't want to spend my whole life in the service.  So I elected release.  One by one we were posted back to Blighty.

 

          I wasn't unhappy at all to board the train in Calcutta and set out for Bombay and board the boat to England.  There were a lot of interesting conversations on the way home from people who had been scattered all over South East Asia.  Everyone comparing notes.

 

          I arrived back in England and took my discharge from the R.A.F. on February 17, 1946.   It had been a great life and an experience for me, thanks to Captain Seymour-Biggs.

 

----- Andy Southall

 

***

Copyright 2007 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved

LINKS

Back to Justin-Kossor Air Force Biographies Page

Back to the Bigg’s Boy Table of Contents

Please Share your Stories! E-mail the Curator to share or discuss or with any questions!

http://www.justinmuseum.com/milbios/southallaabio.html

1 1