Chapter 1
Joining Up, September 1939


I was born during the Great War and grew up with the knowledge of how terrible it was in the trenches, so I was determined that if or when (because it was when), the next war came I would join the Royal Air Force. We had an English teacher who had been a pilot in the Royal Air Corp, and when we got fed up with lessons we could always get him talking about tactics. This strengthened my decision.

In Uniform
Shortly after Munich they formed the Civil Air Guard, the idea being that training would be given to learn to fly and obtain a pilot’s license. I joined up and went to the London Flying Club for my training. I used to go once a week and received lessons on engine and airframes. Also I think I had about half-an-hour on a link trainer and a half-hour flight in a BA Swallow. The idea was that in the event of a war the members of the Civil Air Guard had to join the Royal Air Force. This was fairly late in 1939, because it had taken some time to get the whole thing organised.

When the Germans invaded Poland and an ultimatum was issued by Britain, so that if they did not withdraw we would be at war, I thought that now was the time to fulfil my promise. On the Saturday morning I went up to the Air Ministry, went in and saw a couple of airmen sitting there. They said, ‘What do you want?’

I replied that I had come to join the Air Force as a pilot. ‘We don’t want any pilots. Go home and wait until you are called up.’ ‘But I’m a member of the Civil Air Guard.’ ‘What the hell’s that, we haven’t heard of it, go home.’

I was a bit disappointed but I went out and saw a long queue outside the next door with a sergeant in charge. I said,’What’s the queue for?’ and he said, ‘We are looking for craftsmen, are you any of these?’ pointing to a blackboard. I looked down it and said, ‘I’m an electrician,’ so he said, ‘Right, join the queue.’ I got in there, signed various papers, had a medical and was then told to report back in the morning.

On the Sunday morning I went back up there, took the oath of allegiance and then finally the officer said, ‘Right, we’re off to Uxbridge.’ I said, ’I didn’t realise that we would be going straight away, I haven’t even told my parents or the firm.’ He made such a fuss of trying to find my papers that I finally said, ’Oh, alright I’ll go.’

Just then the announcement came over the radio that Chamberlain was going to make a statement. He came on and said that as the German government had ignored our ultimatum we were now at war with Germany. Then the air-raid sirens sounded and we all went down into the shelter. It turned out to be a false alarm, although we had expected that the war would start with a bombing raid.

So off we went, twelve of us on the Underground to Uxbridge. When we got there we were not allowed out. We didn’t have any paper or stamps so we couldn’t write home and there were massive queues outside the telephone box. Anyway my parents didn’t have a telephone so I couldn’t phone them. It was a week or so before my parents found out what had happened to me. I believe my mother phoned the Air Ministry who said I would be in a transit camp somewhere. Finally I managed to write to them and I got a letter back from Mum. I also wrote a letter to the firm and was called into the Adjutant’s office who wanted to know why I was writing to an enemy firm. I pointed out to him that Siemens in England had been taken over by the British Government after the First World War and was now an English firm. Apparently it was on a list of firms issued by the Government and he was simply acting on that information.

After a fortnight at Uxbridge they moved us up to West Drayton and the corporal there said, ‘Right, now we’re going to do some drill.’ We did drill, marching, forming fours, which they changed to forming threes, learnt to recognise uniforms and the correct way to salute and address officers. This went on for a few weeks and then the corporal said, ‘Now you’re supposed to learn rifle drill, but as we haven’t got any rifles we’ll play football,’ and that’s what we did for the rest of the time there.

At West Drayton we were only allowed out for about four and a half hours, I think, on a Thursday afternoon. On one occasion Mum and Uncle Wally came up and met me in West Drayton. It was possible to catch a train down to London, spend about half an hour there and get a train back just in time to get back to camp. We were not supposed to leave West Drayton but a lot did and so long as we were not late I think they turned a blind eye to it. I owed money to our works canteen so I got in touch with one of the girls there and arranged to meet her and a friend in London. I saw them, gave her the money and let them know what was happening. That was about the highlight of my stay there, although as you can imagine, when a crowd of energetic young men are confined in a camp they always find some way of letting off steam. In our case we used to clear all the beds out of the way and played a form of rugby, although it was done in our socks and this resulted in the floor becoming highly polished. From this we developed a form of skating and the final result was that we were awarded a commendation for having the best kept floor in the camp.

They eventually sorted us out and Sid Hind, who had been with me the whole time, and myself were to go to Henlow for our electrician training. When we arrived there they said, ‘Right, this is a three year course, but as we are in a war situation there is not a lot of time, so we are cutting it down to eighteen weeks, six weeks per year.’ Well I don’t know what they taught in a year but the training was very, very intense. They certainly crammed it into us.

It was getting on into the winter then but we had a few warmish days. I always remember one day when the lecturer, a Yorkshireman with a droning voice, was talking and we were all sitting there warm and on the point of dozing off. Suddenly he said, ‘James? ‘ No reply. ‘James?’ ’Yes sir.’ ‘James, I’m not keeping you awake, am I?’ ‘Oh no sir.’

On Wednesday afternoons the time was given over to sports. On the first Wednesday they asked if we played rugby. They sorted out the rugby players and then said the rest of you go on gas drill, which meant crawling around in hedges in full gas kit, unless you want to go cross-country running. So of course I opted for the cross-country running. I surprised myself because I came in first in the first race. They said, ‘OK you’re captain of the trainees team,’ so I was able to pick the teams and only run when I wanted to. However I enjoyed it. Sid was also in the team and we went to a number of cross-country events in various parts of the country.

I ran in the North of England championships at Rounds and came in seventeenth out of a hundred and seventy starters, so that wasn’t too bad. Unfortunately none of the rest of my team came high enough up for us to win a prize. Then I ran in the North of Thames Championships at Barnet. They wanted me to transfer to the permanent staff so that I could be in the Unit team, but I said that I had joined up to fight a war and not to do cross-country running. Other than that on Saturday afternoons we had the afternoon free, so we used to walk down to the town (about five miles) to a roller skating rink, skate for about four hours and then walk five miles back to the camp. I certainly couldn’t do it now. As I said the training was very good and at the end of the eighteen weeks I passed out as an AC1. You go in the air force as an aircrafthand, and then after some training become an AC2 and then a AC1, the final stage being a LAC (leading aircraftman).

During our time there it was in the middle of winter and turned extremely cold. On one occasion we were being taught how to time a car engine in a big hangar. The temperature was down to 12ºF and the only heating we had was a single paraffin stove. We were all in greatcoats huddled around it and every half hour were taken out to do exercises to keep ourselves warm. Also the showers were in a windy concrete building and although the water was hot you absolutely froze while trying to dry yourself. On guard duty we had a coke brazier in a sheltered doorway and used to go to it every time we did our rounds.

On completing the course I was posted to an aerodrome somewhere up in Lincolnshire, I’ve no idea where it was. We went up to Grantham caught a train on a side line and stopped at a halt where there wasn’t even a platform. There an RAF lorry picked us up and took us out to a village where we were billeted in a mansion house, which was just adjacent to the aerodrome. They were flying Handley-Page Hampdens which as far as I understood were terrible aircraft; they were lucky if they came back in one piece.

After three days I had half a day off and went walking round the village, when I got back the MP on the gate said that the Adjutant wanted to see me, so I went to see the Adjutant who told me that I was being posted overseas. I was to go and draw tropical kit from the store. I had two weeks embarkation leave and had to report back to Waterloo Station.

We were not supposed to let anyone know where we were going, but how on earth do you manage to avoid that walking around with a great big pith helmet hanging from the pack on your back? I had my leave, went to Waterloo and from there we went down to Southampton and got on to a troop ship.

Now I know they say don’t volunteer for anything, but I’d learnt a few tips by then and four of us volunteered to be mess orderlies. I was pleased to find Sid Hind on the boat and he was one of the volunteers. We went over to France and there boarded a troop train, where the mess orderlies had a compartment to themselves instead of being crammed eight to a compartment and in addition we handled all the food, so any that was going buckshee we got it.

We went down through France, skirted Paris and the following morning went round the cliffs in to Marseille, going straight into the harbour with the sunrise striking the cliffs, a beautiful sight. We detrained and embarked on the HMS Devonshire, a proper troop ship. They reckoned they always built these ships without keels because they rolled every way you could think of, anyway once we were on board I thought, right, here we go and I volunteered to be mess orderly. This didn’t turn out to be a good idea, because the captain had an inspection every morning and you had to have all your pots and pans laid out and shining without a speck on them. Anyway it wasn’t too bad and it gave us something to do. A few of us got ourselves organised, got the use of the orderly room, listened to the ship’s radio and produced a ship’s newspaper. We also organised various entertainments, deck quoits and things like that to keep the troops occupied.

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