Chapter 2
Egypt, March 1940


I think it was after about two days we sailed into Malta where we were held while they made up a convoy. We were not allowed ashore and then we had about four days sailing to Alexandria. We disembarked there and were lined up on the quay while they called out our names and the places we were going to. Sid Hind and myself were going to 113 Squadron in Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, as were a number of the airmen who had worked with us in the orderly room, so we were quite pleased about that. Some of the others were going to Shiba and Habannia and a few to Khartoum which was reckoned to be the worst place in the Middle East, so I think we were lucky.

We settled down in Heliopolis. The war hadn’t yet arrived out there so it was under peacetime organisation. We got up at six in the morning, went off up to the hangar where we did some work and at eight o’clock we went down to have breakfast Then back up to the hangar for the colour hoisting, a bit more work, a break for tea and at half past eleven we packed up for the day, back to the mess hall for lunch and we were allowed out to Cairo until one o’clock the next morning. This was every day of the week except Sundays when they had a church parade.

The day following my arrival at Heliopolis I decided to go into Cairo. I was told to take the tram to the depot in Cairo and that the centre of the town was over to the left. I got off the tram and started walking through the streets on the left, there were no other troops around and I was getting some very funny looks from the Egyptians. Suddenly two MPs appeared beside me and wanted to know where I was going. I said the centre of the town.‘Don’t you know that this is an out-of-bounds area?’ I said that I had only arrived in Egypt the previous day and that no one had warned me about out-of-bounds areas. They said,’OK, but in future look at the map in the guardhouse before you come out’.

I think the reason they were lenient was that it was a practise of the old hands to let newcomers learn by their errors. The out-of-bounds area was just adjacent to Shari Wad El Birka which was the street of the official troops brothels. Young Sid Hind was a randy person and he soon found his way down there. He couldn’t understand why I was not interested and eventually persuaded me to go down there with him. I took one look at the place and was appalled at the sordid and dirty conditions. I got out as soon as I could and never went back again.

A number of the troops used to go into Cairo, hire some garries (horse and carts), and have chariot races around the town. I don’t think they were very popular with the Egyptians, but the Unit funds always paid for any damage that was done and then charged their personnel for it.

The first time I went up to the drome, Doug Barrett, a regular airman, took me over the Blenheim aircraft and showed me the inspection that was to be carried out daily on it. We were in the cockpit and he said that they had been doing practise bombing the night before and it was necessary to check the bomb gear to see that no releases had been left cocked. This consisted of operating all the switches and if any lights came on then the firing button was pressed to release them. A couple of days later when I was doing the checks on my aircraft, two lights came on so I pressed the firing button and immediately there was a yell from outside. I jumped out of the aircraft and discovered two parachute flares hanging down either side of the fuselage. They had been left in two bomb bays next to the engines which I did not know existed. Luckily the safety pins had been put in them, otherwise the flares would have fired.

After I had been there about a fortnight my name came up on DRO’s (daily routine orders) for guard duty, so I went down, drew a rifle from the stores and went on to the parade. The sergeant lined us up so I got in the back row and he start giving us rifle drill. ‘Shoulder arms!’ I watched what the others were doing and tried to copy them. I got my rifle on my shoulder, then he said, ‘Present arms!’ Again I watched the others. ‘That man in the back row, where the hell did you do your rifle drill?’ ‘Sorry sergeant I didn’t do any.’ ‘Oh good God !‘ he said, ‘Stay in the back row there and when the officer comes try and copy what the others are doing.’ Just then a dispatch rider came up and asked for three men to guard a bomb dump. He said, ‘Right, you, you and you.’ That included me. As I was leaving he said, ‘Come and see me in the morning.’

When I saw him next morning he said, ‘What’s this about rifle drill?’ I said, ‘Well there were no rifles at the training camp and in any case the corporal said that as we were tradesmen we wouldn’t need rifles.’ He said, ‘He was wrong there. As from tomorrow you start rifle drill.’ So I did. I learnt everything including reversing arms, slow marching, firing salutes, the lot, and as a result I attended every funeral on our squadron from that time onwards.

Doug had become very friendly with an Egyptian, Wally Solomon, who was a radio ham. Now I had done some amateur radio transmitting before the war, so Doug introduced me to him and we used to go down to the Film Studios, where he was a sound engineer, and sometimes he invited us home for a meal. We never saw his wife, she was always in the next room, his daughter served the meal. The studios were just the other side of the Nile from the pyramids, so I saw them from there. I never actually visited them.

By this time the war was getting on, the evacuation from Dunkirk had happened, the French had surrendered and Italy decided that it was time to enter the war. We went up into the desert at Màarten Bàgush. When we got there the CO said we would be at war with Italy next day so we were going to get the first strike in,we should go down to the aircraft, get them fuelled and bombed up ready for a dawn take-off.

Now in those days there were no refuelling bowsers, and the petrol came in four gallon flimsy cans. They had to be handed up to a fitter sitting on the wing who poured them into a big funnel, the rest of us were bashing holes in the tins and passing them up. There were nine aircraft to refuel and it took ages. Then we had to help the armourers to bomb up the aircraft with the result that it was dark before we finished. We hadn’t been able to erect our tents before we started, so we finished up rolling ourselves in our blankets and sleeping out in the open. When I woke up in the morning I found a snake, a centipede and a scorpion in the blanket with me. Most of the others had the same and none of us were bitten. We just shook them out.

At dawn our aircraft took off. As an attack on us was expected we were told to disperse into the desert, and come back when the aircraft returned. There weren’t really any places to disperse into as it was all low thorn bushes, but there were a few rocks and we managed to shelter from the sun behind them. When the aircraft returned we went out, did our inspections, refuelled and rebombed them and again it was very late before we finished. Anyway it took us about a week or so before we got into a routine and we learnt to do things a bit more quickly. We stopped dispersing because there had been no retaliation against us.

A squadron consisted of twelve planes, three in each of the three flights and three in the workshop flight and I was responsible for the maintenance of one of them in ‘A’ flight. One of my friends was a wireless operator, Hankinson, who was also a UT air gunner. In peacetime in the desert the aircraftsmen were encouraged to volunteer for aircrew and for this they received an extra shilling a day. They could not become pilots but were navigators and under training airgunners, who had to be able to use the morse code. Hank was one of these and his navigator, Ian, was a corporal armourer and when the war started out there they were in the thick of it. They went on one raid in my aircraft and we received word that they were in trouble. Well the plane came in and made a bumpy landing but got down OK. Our ambulance rushed out there and lifted out the pilot and took him to the sickbay.

Apparently they had just crossed the Libyan border when the plane went into a dive and Ian called Hank on the intercom that the pilot had been shot. He managed to pull the pilot back in his seat and pulled the plane up but Hank had to crawl through from the back to help Ian move the pilot out of the seat so that Ian could take over. Now Ian had never flown a plane but he said he had always watched the pilot and knew roughly what to do. Well, he landed it successfully, but they couldn’t understand what had happened because there were no enemy aircraft near them. The plane was impounded, I was forbidden to go near it, and an investigation was started. It was found that a bullet from the rear turret gun had entered the front of the plane and just grazed the pilot’s head, knocking him out. Hank said that he always sat facing forward when flying because of airsickness but that he had not switched the gun switch on, nor pressed the firing switch. The gun electrics were given a thorough test but no fault was found. On the Blenheim the gun turret rotated through 360º and to prevent a gunner hitting his own plane while firing at and following an enemy plane there were microswitches fitted to the turret which were operated by profiles around the turret seating. They jacked the plane up into its flying position and applied pressure to the front of the turret and found that when the plane was flying the air pressure on the turret inactivated the microswitches. It still did not explain why the guns fired but they thought that Hank must have had the switch on because it was usual to test the guns before crossing into enemy territory and an involuntary movement of his finger fired the gun.

I was in the clear. If the circuit had been found to be faulty I would have been court-martialled. While the investigation was under way another plane came back with bullet holes in the wings where the same fault occurred, so all our planes had to be modified. One result of this incident was that Ian was sent down to Rhodesia to a pilots training course. About this time it was decided that all aircrews were to be sergeants and they were sent down to Cairo for training. Hank was very unhappy about this as he did not want to fly any longer but he was unable to get out of it. I didn’t see him again.

We had a 30cwt lorry as a flight runabout and as we had no driver it was usual for anyone to drive it, so most of the time I was in the desert I managed to get to drive it. I also had to drive our floodlight out onto the drome whenever we were doing night flying so I got quite expert. The only place I did not enjoy driving was when we had to go away from the camp where there were only tracks through rocks and shrubs. The lorry bounced all over the place so your foot bounced on the pedals making it very hard to steer.

In the early days in the desert there was a certain amount of decency between the opposing air forces. The Italians would drop letters from prisoners of war for their families and the identity tags of airmen who had been killed and we reciprocated. It was this way that we learnt of the death of the aircrew of the first plane we lost. It was a practise in the air force that if somebody died their personal effects would be sent to their family and all their other possessions were auctioned off among the squadron and the proceeds also sent to their family.

The wireless operator/UT airgunner of our first fatality was Jas Toner and after we had auctioned his possessions the CO told us that he was an orphan who had been brought up in an orphanage, joined the airforce as soon as he was old enough, and trained as a wireless operator. Before he went on the raid he had filled in the will in his paybook and had left all his possessions to the members of ‘A’ flight. I forgot all about this, but about three months after I was demobbed I received a letter from the Air Ministry enclosing a cheque for a few pounds, this being my share of his will.

The bomb load of a Blenheim was, I think, about 500lbs - either two 250lb bombs or two containers with sixteen 25lb or twelve 50lb anti-personnel bombs. These bombs were held in the containers in groups of three or four by a single bar hinged at on end and held by an electrically operated lock at the other. Now, when the aircraft took off in the desert they blew back a lot of sand which got into the lock mechanism and caused it to jam up, preventing the bar from falling out. When a plane carrying them returned it would fly over so that we could see if it had any hang-ups. If so the pilot would be informed by radio and would taxi the plane on landing to a remote part of the airfield where it was the electricians job to go out and recock the bar mechanism.

When I went out to do this I noticed that everyone else kept clear, because sometimes immediately you touched the bar it would drop out. The first time it happened to me I was standing clear and the bombs dropped out and fell flat on the sand. The height of the bomb bay was about four foot above the ground and a bomb had to fall at least ten foot through the air before it turned nose down so that the detonator would hit the ground, so it was perfectly safe to let them drop. If you had put out your arms to try to stop them dropping they would have immediately turned nose down and probably exploded. I couldn’t convince any of the fitters or riggers that it was safe so they still kept well away.

One night I was on flight duty with an armourer when our CO came in with a plane that had been shot up. He landed on the drome and the undercarriage collapsed, but the crew got out OK. We dashed out to it and as we arrived the armourer noted that there were some 25lb bombs around. We told the CO and he told me to remain with the aircraft while the armourer went back to collect a bombtrolley and fuse pins. Usually when a plane crashed a pile of airmen descended upon it to try to collect the radio or clock or other useful items. Several trucks arrived but I yelled to them that there were hang-ups and they all disappeared.

The armourer returned and we started crawling under the plane to retrieve the bombs. He said to me don’t turn them upright, let them hang down and I will put the fuse pins in, I did this and we collected eight bombs. The next day the detonators were removed in the armoury and they found that the fuse wire that held the firing pin back had been almost completely cut through on two of them, if I had turned them upright the weight of the plunger would have been sufficient to detonate them.

There was a really good beach on the Med at Màarten Bàgush and we regularly went down there for a swim. We had no costumes but as there were no females within about a hundred miles it didn’t bother us. About two miles off the shore were some rocks and we used to swim out to them. We learnt to carry our plimsolls slung around our necks because the rocks were very sharp and cut our feet the first time we got on them.

A bit later these rocks were used for a training exercise. It was decided to practise skip bombing, the idea being that if a plane could manage to get down to sea level in the middle of a convoy it could not be fired upon, because ships in the convoy could be hit by this fire. Once a plane was there it could fly straight at a ship, release a delayed action fused bomb and pull over the top of the ship while the bomb went into its side. The idea was OK but after two of our planes piled into the rocks the experiment was terminated.

We were always trying to think up ideas to make our life in the desert easier. One thing was that we had no means of cooling drinks in the hot weather. It was possible to reduce the temperature of water if you could get hold of some earthenware vessels which were porous, because water in them seeped through and was evaporated from the outside, causing the whole vessel to cool down, but we were more ambitiious, trying to make a refrigerator. We had a basic idea of its construction but we were not able to get hold of any ammonia which was the only refrigerant we could think of.

Another time we thought that it would be nice to have some fresh eggs, so we managed to get some Arabs to get us some chickens. These were horribly scrawny things not much bigger than Bantams, but we looked after them and fed them on scraps from the cookhouse. After about three months we had not got a single egg and our expert who was the son of a farmer said he did not think that they were going to lay, so we decided to turn them into soup. Once they had been killed it was discovered that there were eggs inside them and if we had only waited a bit longer we would have finally achieved our aim.

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