The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of Cuthbert D. "Tommy" Thomson
Ground Crew, No. 14 Sqdn, RAF/RCAF
I lived on Musgrave Street, Victoria, B.C., just four blocks away from the home of Captain Seymour-Biggs. After seeing several articles in the paper concerning various young people whom Biggs had assisted in joining the R.A.F. I decided to pay him a visit. I had always been interested in mechanics so this seemed a wonderful opportunity for a proper training and certainly something with a future.
I contacted Captain Seymour-Biggs at his home. I was not aware he had an office in town. After a period of some weeks all arrangements were made pertaining to passports, travel times and routes etc.
A group of eight of us, E.H. Rawlins, S. Dingsdale, W.J. Sipprell, Cyril White, Albert Stanfield, B.T. Shaw, W.A. Betts and myself, left Victoria by way of Seattle and then train to Chicago, travelling on the Milwaukee Road. We were then routed to Montreal from where we sailed on the Duchess of Bedford, about the end of July, 1939. We arrived in Liverpool the day before the August bank holiday. As a result we had to wait a couple of days before officially joining the R.A.F. on August 8, 1939 - most of us were in training to become aero-engine fitters.
We were sent to Uxbridge, near London, for our square-bashing, something I must admit I really enjoyed. It was while here I heard the declaration of war on September 3rd, 1939. That night we were in an air-raid shelter wearing full gas equipment as the Allies were convinced we would certainly be gassed. Fortunately for us, no such thing happened, but as one may imagine, things moved very quickly from that point on.
We were passed out in short time - not the usual pomp and ceremony for such an occasion. We were sent to Cotsford for our basic training on aircraft engines, both maintenance and overhaul. The training was excellent.
At the end of February, 1940, I was posted to N0. 3 Squadron, at Kenley, near Croydon. The one job I can recall was assisting putting variable pitch airscrews on Hurricanes, replacing the twin-blade wooden propellers.
The following month I was posted overseas to the Middle East, thereby starting another one of life's experiences. We slept in the King Edward school overnight in Southampton and were marched to the docks at 8 a.m. in the morning.
We left Southampton about 3 p.m. on Sunday, March 24th and travelled on a crowded troop train, via Le Havre on a sunny day through France to Marseilles where we boarded the troopship Del Mar, on the 27th of March. We left that same day at 4 p.m. and for the following five days sailed through the Mediterranean stopping three hours at Malta and then to Alexandria where we were surprised to find the docks brilliantly illuminated.
I was posted to N0.14 Squadron, Palestine, situated in Amman, Trans Jordan. We left Alexandria at 1 p.m. arriving Suez Canal at 9 p.m. Crossed by ferry and boarded a train which left at 11 p.m. Then by lorry 150 miles to Amman through Jerusalem and Jericho. The grandfather of King Hussein of Jordan was at that time the Honorary Commodore of the R.A.F. in that area.
It was a very good squadron and the food was excellent, but the good life was not to last. On May 19th, we were posted to Port Sudan, approximately halfway down the Red Sea.
Italy declared war as Germany's ally on June 10th, so the following day our squadron went on their first raid against the enemy in the East African campaign - the target, an Italian seaplane base in Abyssinia.
From then on it was a matter of bombing the enemy and being bombed - surviving under intolerable conditions as regards to temperatures up to 130 degrees and humidity in the high 90's and of course we must not fail to mention the scorpions and tarantulas we had for company.
Just before Christmas I was posted to Abu Sueir in Egypt along with several others, having spent two weeks in the hospital with pleurisy. To my knowledge, very little has been published about the East African Campaign, but just for the record, the troops on the border between the Sudan and Eritrea were outnumbered 6 to 1 but still held their ground.
In the spring of 1941, the enemy launched their first raid on the camp at Abu Sueir after missing a convoy at Port Suez, and for the following two to three weeks we were bombed repeatedly until the camp was no longer serviceable. Needless to say the casualties were quite high and our only defence were some British anti-aircraft gunners who showed tremendous courage.
Our engine repair section was moved to Heliopolis, situated on the outskirts of Cairo - one of the main aerodromes in that area for B.O.A.C. - Lord Haw Haw1 came over the wireless a few weeks later with the announcement - "We know where you are. We will be seeing you." Within a period of just under twelve months we were once again subjected to heavy enemy bombing. The workshops were rendered unserviceable to say the least.
After being bombed off of several camps with heavy casualties, and as the replacement of aircraft engines was so vital to the war effort in the Middle East, our engine repair section was moved to 111 Maintenance Unit about 18 miles outside of Cairo. Our new location was in the Tura Caves, formed when stone was removed in the year 3000 BC to build the great pyramid of Cheops. There were twenty to twenty-five caves going back underground approximately 500 to 600 feet. For our purposes, cement floors were laid, and electric light and workshops were installed for all types of important repair units, such as radar equipment, engine repair and overhauls and fuel dumps etc. Now well underground we would be free from enemy attack.
However, during the renovations the mummified bodies of two adults and a child were exposed. For a practical joke, one of the chaps in our tent area decided to bring one of them to our area, but the head fell off. He arrived carrying just the head. We took several pictures of it.
Needless to say the powers that be were soon on the job as this was no doubt quite a find.
The following two years we worked a ten-hour day, six days a week schedule and it more or less became similar to a job in civvy street. We made weekly jaunts into Cairo for a little relaxation.
In September, 1944, I was posted back to England. We left from Port Said in quite a large convoy escorted by two aircraft carriers. We appeared to have air cover most of the daylight hours.
We were given to understand that we were the first convoy to enter the Irish Sea from the south. We were the last ship in the convoy to be unloaded, which meant an unending wait of six days after being away from Blighty for four and a half years.
Early in 1945 I transferred to the R.C.A.F. and was scheduled for repatriation to Canada. At our port of embarkation, I, with many others, helped load American wounded for several days, on to the Queen Elizabeth. Then quietly one evening in April we set sail for New York. While at sea we received news of the death of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, of the United States. I certainly felt very sorry for all the American servicemen on board.
It was nice to be home again.
----- C. D. Thomson / Tommy Thomson
Foot Note 1 An English (traitor) who broadcast propaganda from Germany.
Copyright 2001 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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