The Biggs' Boys
By Ken Stofer
Copyright 2005, 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
Biography of James White
Ground Crew, Battle of France, Bomb Disposal Unit, Blitz, RAF & RCAF
I was living in Victoria, B.C. It was in the early part of 1938 that I first became aware of the possibility of joining the Royal Air Force. Apparently the thing to do was to get in touch with a certain Captain Seymour-Biggs who lived in Victoria. A few phone calls later, an interview was arranged with the Captain, and must have been a success as I was later told to have a medical examination and obtain three character references.
After doing all of this a final meeting was held with Biggs and I was told that I was accepted for training as an armourer. All I had to do then was find enough money for the fare to England, (about $200). I was told I would be met by a member of the R.A.F. in Liverpool who would pass me on for basic training in Uxbridge. I knew then that I was "in".
Two incidents of note concerning the trip. After a non-stop trip by bus across the U.S.A, I arrived in New York with two days to kill before my ship was due to sail. I was an avid hockey fan so decided to have a look at Madison Square Gardens, home of the New York Rangers. Imagine my surprise when the first person I saw outside the Gardens was none other than Lyn Patrick. I had gone to Victoria High School with Lyn. The recognition was mutual. He was then playing for the New York Rangers of the National Hockey League. I explained I was on my way to England to join the R.A.F. He insisted I meet his brother Muzz (also hockey player) and wife. I was their guest to a show at the Radio City Music Hall.
The other incident was that the name of the ship I sailed on was the Lancastria, later to be bombed and sunk while evacuating troops (White had to be evacuated) after the fall of France.
A three-month stint of square-bashing in the peace-time R.A.F. was no joy-ride and when a squad had completed its passing out parade it could be favourably compared with a similar group from one of the regular British Army regiments.
The passing out always took place on a Friday afternoon and the smartest person on parade always received what was known as the "stick". This meant that he could spend the night in his own barracks and on Saturday morning he was the Group Captain's runner. The rest of the squad had to mount a 24-hour guard with all the ceremony this entailed. I often wondered how the others felt when I, the only Canadian, received "The stick".
After a period of many months at the various trade training centres, I was eventually posted to a squadron. Life in the regular peace-time R.A.F. was very different to that after war was declared. One could go out in the evening in civvies, and week-end passes were available. One could even live out of camp if one could find lodgings close by. It was during these days I met someone who was to become a very close friend then and throughout the post-war period.
We had received various replacements to the Armoury Section. One of the new chaps was quite noticeable by his accent. It turned out he was another Biggs' boy, Al Effa. We stayed together for the remaining time in England and also during the time in France from September, 1939 until we were evacuated at the end of the "phoney war" in 1940. This all leads to an interesting event while in France.
When leave was finally organized we decided that seeing as we had no relations in England we would take our leave in Paris.
While in Paris, Al and I met a Canadian journalist who was so pleased to see Canadians she thought it would be a good idea for us to visit the Canadian Ambassador. Arrangements were made and we had an interview with the then Col. Vanier, who became General Vanier and later the Gov. Gen. of Canada. We were the first two Canadian service personnel to be so received as no other Canadian service personnel was that far afield at that point in the war. An interesting follow up to this is that many years later when Gov. Gen Vanier was on a visit to Victoria he had his secretary phone me at work and express his regrets that he could not arrange a meeting but he sent his best wishes.
My stay in France was short-lived with Hitler on the move as fast as he was. I won't go into all the details as I know that Al Effa will tell you about it in his story in this book.
Like everyone else in England we were learning to live with the Blitz. Suddenly I was informed I had volunteered for a course on bomb disposal. No one had any idea what that was all about, but I soon found out. It was explained that a lot of the enemy bombs dropped on English soil did not always explode. They were either faulty or had a delayed action. Our job was to find out and take the necessary action to de-activate them. After a very sketchy course, and with very little equipment and a badge B.D.U., on our uniform, we were sent to set up Bomb Disposal Units. It was all very hush-hush. We worked mostly by trial and error (there was very little room for error), until we learned what to do and what not to do. This went on for quite some time until I was fortunately moved on to other things.
From the time the R.C.A.F. had arrived in England I had applied on numerous occasions for a transfer to the RCAF. Always the same answer - you can't be spared. Finally a little break, no transfer but a posting to Bournemouth where I could meet a lot of Canadians. There were a lot of Canadian, Australian and New Zealand aircrew there waiting for posting to squadrons.
My job was to keep them occupied with some class-room instruction on the use of small arms. Too good to last. Then came the news no one really wanted. "overseas posting".
The trouble with an overseas posting was you never knew where you were going until you got there. I was sent to India and eventually Burma. Then it happened - transfer to the R.C.A.F. with instructions to make my way back to Bombay. Quite a trip but the reason made it worthwhile. A real highlight of my stay in the Far East was the telegram I received announcing the birth of my daughter who I was not to see until going on leave after returning to England from India.
My last connection with the Royal Air Force was to Uxbridge to pick up the civvy clothes I had worn when traveling to England from Canada seven years previous.
My trip home to Canada was on the Queen Elizabeth and quite luxurious compared to the sea trip to and from India. I was home again in Victoria and discharged before my wife and daughter were able to get passage on a ship for war brides, but it was worth the wait.
The whole seven years was a remarkable experience and I would not have missed it for anything. Many thanks to the late Capt. Seymour-Biggs who started it all.
----- Jim White
Copyright 2006 Ken Stofer, All Rights Reserved
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