The Coming of War
I well remember the declaration of the war in 1939. Mr Ted Carney was the engineer and he had a car with a radio in it. He had put the car near the stores and we went to hear the announcement at 11am on Sunday.
We all said it wouldn’t last but a few weeks or at the most six weeks. How wrong we were.
I was in a reserved occupation and had to walk to the recruiting office on the Wharfage in Ironbridge to sign on. About three weeks later I had to report at a centre in Shrewsbury for a medical. I was passed A1 and interviewed to see which service I would like to join. I said ‘The RAF’.
Within about four weeks of the medical I received a letter to report at RAF Padgate on 9th September 1940. My father came with me to the railway station. I caught a bus to camp after the train journey. After reporting to the guard room I was amongst hundreds waiting to have their name called and and given a number. Mine was 10, 200, 22. About twenty of us were taken to a billet and told to sort ourselves a bed. That very same night the sirens went off. I did not hear it but all the others did and went to the shelter, except one and in the morning he told me he had crouched under his bed. Those who had gone to the shelter came out wet through: there was about a foot of water in there.
After being kitted out it was to Morecambe that we went to do the squarebashing. We all went into very nice guest houses. I enjoyed the four weeks there. While in Morecambe I attended a boxing tournament in a large hall along the front. The top British boxers were on the bill including Jack London, heavyweight champion; Peter Kane, former world flyweight champion and many others. What I remember most is Peter Kane’s contest. He was doing some fancy punches, left himself open and his opponent hit him. He fell through the ropes and landed on the timekeeper’s table.
Next stop for me was Blackpool and I was billeted at 58. Albert Road (Central). I didn’t go much on that place. It had a peculiar smell. I went to the billeting officer and he said “I can send you to worse”, so that was that. Next day about 200 of us assembled on top of the bus station. I was selected for a flight mechanic’s course. The first few weeks were spent at the bus station’s schoolroom and afterwards at Square Gates Aerodrome for about 26 weeks when we were taught about engines etc. At the end of the course we had an exam. I came out as AC1.
Strange, but my mother had a cousin who kept a shop in Cleveleys, Blackpool, and a second cousin in a high class ladies’ shop in Central. She took me one Sunday afternoon to have tea at Cleveleys. They were very nice but I never went there again, I was too independent.
I had two weeks leave and then received a letter to report at Watton. Nobody seemed to know where it was. I even went to Madeley Market Station and they told me it was in Wales. Fortunately I received another letter, from one of the chaps on the course, and he wrote that he was posted to Watton in Norfolk. I thought “what a near squeak”.
In those days it was a real journey to Watton. I caught the ‘Dodger’, Coalport to Wellington, at ten minutes to seven. Arriving in Wellington it was across the bridge and wait for the Paddington train that arrived in London about 11.30am, and then across London to St. Pancras to catch the train up through Thetford to Watton. I arrived about 5.00pm.
This was an operational unit: 21 Squadron – Blenheims. I was billeted in a brick building, upstairs, right opposite the tarmac square. The cookhouse was about 200 yards away and one had to cross a busy road to get to it.
I worked on the flights doing daily inspections etc. One day I was going for my dinner and I cut across the square. All of a sudden I heard a loud voice shouting. I looked around to see who he was shouting at but of course it was me. He gave me a dressing down – only a parade was allowed on the square when the flag was up.
On Good Friday 1941, I was posted to RAF Cosford for a fitter’s course. Birmingham was being raided and we waited for hours outside Birmingham station. I had two uncles working at Cosford: one in the stores and my uncle Albert Gainham was a moulder for the Air Ministry. The course lasted for about nine weeks so of course I came home when I had the opportunity. Some men who worked at Cosford had worked in the pits. Some were stokers and one was in charge of the swimming pool.
I was posted back to Watton and back on to the flights. I had two experiences which stand out. One was a Blenheim which had been shot up and was in the hangar for repair. On the Sunday afternoon, the Corporal in charge said “the Flight Commander Leader, Graham Hogg, is coming to air test it”. When he came I said “Do you mind me coming with you?”. “Jump in”, he said “Have you got a parachute?” “No” I said. “OK” he said, “If you don’t want one I don’t” so he handed his over to the Corporal.
At Watton there were not any runways, the pilots just taxied across the grass. As we were taxi-ing to get into position for takeoff we heard a hissing sound. “What’s that?” he said. I said “Air escaping but I don’t know where from”. “Never mind, we’ll soon find out” he said. “Glory be, it’s my unlucky day” I thought.
It was a beautiful day. We took off and for half an hour he turned that machine through every possible angle. I looked up once – I could see Watton church – what an experience. When we landed the Corporal said “You threw that about Sir”. He said “I expect my passenger enjoyed it!”.
The other experience was when I was on Duty Flight, which meant staying by the watch tower and calling any visiting aircraft over to see what they wanted. This light aircraft landed and I signaled him to come to me. He stopped the engine and I went over to see him. He dropped the side door and I took a look to see if there were any pips on his shoulder but it was blank. We talked away about one thing and another. Eventually he got out a map and said “I’m going down to RAF Halton”. I said “There’s Watton church on the map and there’s Watton church in reality and the railway lines run not far from the church. If you follow the railway lines they will take you to your destination”. He said “Fine”. I said “I have to book you in at the watch tower. Who shall I say you are?” He said “Air Vice Marshall Graham”. I said “Very good Sir” and waved him off. I then went back to the watch tower and told them. The panic button must been pushed because less than a minute later the CO’s car came quickly but Group Captain Williams was too late.
Bill Edrich, the cricketer, came as CO of the squadron. When we were waiting for aircraft to come back some of the lads would play ‘tossing the pony’, a game similar to quoits, and he would watch.
After a couple of months I was sent to Debden to form a unit for RAF Cranfield, about eight miles north of Bedford. This was 51 Operational Training Unit with Blenheims and Beaufighters. I should estimate around 2,000 personnel, including pilots practicing night flying. If the weather was bad at night, they switched to days wearing dark glasses and the runway was lit up to simulate night time.
I had not been there but a couple of weeks when a notice went up for anyone interested in football to write their name and position. Trials were held and I was selected to play. The first match was away and our RAF bus pulled up outside the guard room. I jumped in and when the last one was on board someone brought a large wicker type basket like those used to transport pigeons (it was our strip). Someone said “What’s that basket for?”. I said “It’s for the pigeons at half time”. In Shropshire, pre-war, the visiting team would often bring a couple of pigeons, one for halftime and one for fulltime (to send back the scores). As soon as I said it a Corporal Cook said “Where do you come from?” I told him and learned that he came from Church Stretton and had played at some of the local venues. I was alright in the cookhouse when he was on duty!
We played regularly the whole time I was at Cranfield. The CO, Group Captain Fullergood, was keen on football and played for headquarters. Some weeks I played three times so I decided to miss some matches – I didn’t think it was fair. I was summoned to the station headquarters and told by the Adjutant that the CO said I was to play if my name appeared on the Daily Routine Orders. Footballing took me to many RAF, Army and private places. I well remember playing at RAF Cardington. The pitch was only about 100 yards from the hangar doors in which the R101 airship was housed. I went into the hangar – a massive space – and fastened to the sides of the hangar were many small light aircraft. When we played at a military establishment we always had a tea – bangers and mash mainly.
All this time, part of 1941 and all of 1942, we worked very hard – at one time on 12 hour shifts. It was impossible to get proper sleep. Both shifts lived in the same billet so you would be wakened by the others coming in for lunch or tea time. Fortunately this only went on for about three months.
A special fault finding team was set up of four fitters/engine and 2 fitters/airframe. I was one for the engines. We looked after about four different flights. I enjoyed that. I often flew on test flights; in fact the the pilot liked you to be with him. I could almost get away with murder. I remember getting to Bedford railway station after returning from 7 day leave and the last bus to Cranfield had gone. So I walked it with my suitcases. I arrived just after midnight. The station police said “You should have stopped in Bedford for the night and come in on the bus in the morning”.
I eventually shared an end room with another corporal. I was Orderly Corporal Christmas 1942. I had to see to the chairs being sent to the mess after church parade. The duty officer said “You know where to find me if needed”. I never saw him again. It was late before I went to bed. Next morning I overslept until about 9am – I should have taken the sick parade at 7am. I put my trousers on over my pyjamas and my overcoat to conceal my top and off to the CO I went. Everything was alright; the guardroom had seen to the sick parade. I went back, dressed, and had a late breakfast.