Chapter 13
Return to England, March 1944


I hadn’t been there long when my papers for the return to England came through. This was a great surprise because, although the tour of duty overseas in peacetime was four years for a single man, we had not expected that this would apply in wartime. However, my return was right on the dot, exactly four year after my posting abroad. The Adjutant called us all in to tell us the good news and then asked if any of us wished to sign on for another tour of duty out there. I don’t know how long the tour of duty was for, but he didn’t get any takers.

In fact I only just got away in time, because a week after I left the Japs attacked, broke through our lines and the squadron was surrounded by them. The army counter-attacked and rescued them, but it was a very nasty time.

Sid Hind and some of the others who had joined the squadron with us at Alex were all on the same repatriation so we all went down together to Calcutta where we had a few days which we spent having slap-up meals in restaurants and going round the market looking for presents to take home. Then we had the long journey across India and boarded a P&O boat at Bombay where we were delighted to meet up with our original crowd. Only a few of the old entertainment group were missing which included Ron Biggs, who finished up in China. Naturally, we again set ourselves up in the orderly room in readiness for the trip home, but this time we only produced a ship’s magazine, because most of the news was broadcast to us over the ship’s tannoy system.

A few days later a boat drill was organised and everyone was given a boat station except the fifteen of us in the orderly room. We asked about this and were told that in the event of an air-raid we were to go up to the top deck and when all the lifeboats had been launched, we were to release all the Calli liferafts and were to leave the ship on the last one. Luckily, we did not have to perform this function, although the convoy in front of us in the Med and the one behind were both attacked.

From the Med we sailed out into the Atlantic, around Ireland and finally docked at Liverpool where we were taken off and sent to digs in Morecambe. It was strange being back in England again. I remember going into a restaurant and asking if we required ration cards to get a meal there, and was quite surprised when they said no. We did have a meal in one place and when we had finished found ourselves carrying out our plate, knife and fork out to wash them up only realising when we reached the cashdesk what we were doing.

After a few days we were told that we would be going on disembarkation leave and all of the Londoners were put on a train which went to the station at the exhibition centre at Kensington. I took a bus to Fulham Broadway and then a taxi to my home in Wandsworth. Just before the war they were building a new bridge at Wandsworth, so I asked the driver if it was open. This puzzled him and he said it hadn’t been bombed. It took a bit of explaining before he realised that I hadn’t been in England for years.

When we got to my home I knocked on the door and it was opened by Mum who hadn’t known that I was on my way home. It was a great surprise for her and when she spoke I was also surprised, because I had never before realised that her speech was like a Cockney’s. I’d been for so long among people with all different accents that I had lost my own accent almost completely.

I think I had about four weeks leave and was then posted to a Mosquito squadron at Manston in Kent. It was now May and we were carrying out raids over France and Germany. There was a sergeant in charge of the electrical section, but he spent most of his time in the local pubs and was seldom completely sober, so I found myself running the section.

At least half of my section were sailors who had finished their training and were waiting for posting to an aircraft carrier. There were quite a lot of sailors attached to the squadron so they were under their own discipline. One thing that amused us RAF men was that when we were off duty we could walk out of the camp, but they had to line up at the gate until a petty officer called out, ‘Liberty boat ashore!’ and then they all walked out. If they were not there on time they had to wait for the next liberty boat.

Because Manston was probably the nearest airfield to France a lot of the aircraft which had been damaged came back to land there. The American Flying Fortresses often flew around letting their aircrew bale out and then the pilot attempted a landing which was usually successful. Other planes crashed on landing. We were clearing about twenty planes a week from the runway.

I remember watching the thousand bomber raids going over and it was quite impressive to see them. They usually flew with their lights on while they were over England and the sight of them boosted morale, because we had previously only seen enemy planes in mass formation.

At Manston they had built bays for the aircraft with earth walls to protect them from bombing. My aircraft was in the bay next to a hangar which was the flight section office. One morning I went out to my plane, did the daily inspection and climbed out to go to the office to sign the daily routine book. As I left, the armourers arrived to bomb the plane up. I had just finished signing the D700 when there was a terrific explosion and we dashed out to find the plane I had just left in flames.

There was another plane standing there and a sergeant yelled to us to move it out of the way. As we were doing so, one of the airmen shouted that he could see an armourer against one of the bay walls and he started to run towards him. The sergeant grabbed him and shouted, ‘There’s a 500lb bomb there!’ A couple of minutes later it exploded.

We later heard that the armourers had been loading a container of AP bombs like the ones we used to use in the desert, but these had been redesigned with doors instead of drop bars. Apparently the jacket of one of the armourers had caught on the door and in pulling it free the door opened. He put out his arm to try to stop the bombs falling, this turned them onto their noses with fatal results. If I had been a couple of minutes later I would have been in the plane.

One evening I was called up to do guard duty and when I reported I found that I was the guard commander and that there was a prisoner in the guardroom. The MPs said that they would be off duty from 1800 hours to 800 hours the next day. I was to take command of the prisoner, take him to the mess for supper, lock him up at 2000 hours and hand him back in the morning. It turned out that he was a deserter and that he had escaped from a previous guard with the result that the guard commander was now on a charge for losing him. He told us that he would be off again if he got the chance.

I was very unhappy with the situation, especially when he wanted to go to the toilet. I took two of the guards with their rifles, put them at the toilet entrances and went myself to stand outside the cubicle, after making sure that he couldn’t get out of the window. It was a great relief when I finally got him locked up for the night.

One day the aircrew of my plane reported that the undercarriage lights were not indicating that it was locked down, so I did a thorough examination of them and could not find anything wrong. The fitters said that there was nothing wrong with the hydraulics, so we had the plane put up on trestles and pumped the legs up and down. Again I could not find a fault with the electrics so they removed the undercarriage and took it to the workshop for thorough tests, fitting a new one to my plane. The undercarriage passed on their test so they fitted it on another plane which went off on a test flight and crashed on landing. Luckily the crew got out OK but the plane was a write off.

The evening before the invasion every plane in the country had broad black and white stripes painted on their wings. This was because the Germans had captured some of our planes and were using them against us. The following day any plane flying without the stripes was taken to be hostile and was shot down.

Myself and another corporal had a small room on the end of a barrack hut and I had the top bunk. One night after we had turned in the airraid sirens sounded and I rolled out of my bunk, forgetting that I was on the top and landed with a bump on the floor. There had been so few airraids that we wondered what it was and dashed outside the hut. We saw a small plane with a flame coming out of the back going over towards London. It was the first of the buzzbombs. They came over regularly then, you could hear the ramjet engine with a phut-phut-phut rather like a noisy motorbike, and when it cut out the plane would dive into the ground and explode. So long as you could hear the engine you knew that you would be OK. Mind you there was no way of steering the buzzbomb and it was quite capable of suddenly turning round. One of our chaps had taken a flat in Birchington down near the coast and he had his wife with him. He told us that one night they went out on to their balcony on the second floor and watched a buzzbomb come up the high street below them and explode on the outskirts of the town.

They were faster than our fighter aircraft so our planes usually only had one chance to get them by diving down from height. We had a squadron of Meteors (the first operational jet planes) at Manston and they were capable of catching the buzzbombs. The most effective way of destroying them was to tip them over with their wingtips which caused them to dive to the ground and explode. Of course, this was only possible while they were flying over fields. Later the V2s started dropping on London and there was no defence against them.

One day a lot of planes towing gliders landed and the troops from them were billeted with us over night. We were not allowed out of camp so that no one could talk about it. They left the next morning to land at Arnhem in the attempt to take the bridge there.

Later the Germans mounted a counter-attack in the Ardennes. They had been holding Dieppe and this was an attempt to break through and cut our armies in half. The Americans were fighting in this area and it was snowing heavily so no air cover was available, but on Christmas day the skies suddenly cleared and we were ordered to get every plane into the sky. We missed our Christmas dinner, but the Germans were defeated so that was sufficient consolation.

Not long after this we were told that our squadron was now in the 2nd TAF (tactical air force) and that we would be going over to France. We were moved to Blackbush airfield near Camberley. The airfield included a couple of local pubs, so from that time on I saw nothing of my sergeant. An order came out that all 2nd TAF personnel had to be capable of driving in convoy. I was not happy about this because convoy driving is the most stressful of all. Anyway we all had to take a driving test. I took mine in a three ton lorry with a sergeant instructor. We were going around the perimeter track and a plane was coming around the other way. The sergeant said, ‘Get off the track!’ and I stalled the engine. He pushed me out of the way, restarted the engine, drove of the track and then said, ‘You don’t think I’m going to pass you?’ So I failed the test. I liked to think that I did it deliberately, but now I think maybe that I panicked. The result was that in France I was not called to drive in convoy.

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