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Les mémoires de guerre de Ken West, le flight engineer de l’équipage d’Eddy Marcoux.
These memoirs were written in September 2007 Kenneth West’s RAF Memoirs
Kenneth West’s RAF Memoirs
February ’44 ‑ June ’47
I was born in Plymouth, Devon on 21st November, 1925.
I moved to London in 1932 and was attending Ponders End Technical College until October 1940 when my father, a Reserved Naval Officer, told us to move back to Launceston, Cornwall, where the bulk of my relatives lived. I had intended to continue at the Technical College in Plymouth, but unfortunately the Germans blitzed Plymouth just before we arrived.
I was apprenticed to the local paper, the Cornish and Devon Post, as a Compositor and Printer. Soon I became the senior apprentice as all the men were called up, becoming a Linotype Keyboard Compositor which was my career until I retired in 1990.
I was invited by my cousin’s friend to join the newly‑formed Launceston College A.T.C. (Air Training Cadets) and, as I was mechanically minded, I worked my way up to being a Leading Cadet and became quite knowledgeable on aero‑engines. We trained in the usual things: square bashing, rifle drill, fired rifles, aircraft identification, cross‑country running, and an occasional weekend of gliding.
Towards the end of 1943, a poster was displayed saying ‘Change your Overalls for a Flying Suit’ ‑ on the first day of joining the RAF I was issued with a pair of overalls! My Squadron Commander suggested I applied to become a Flight Engineer, recommended me, and I had an interview in London and was accepted. I was called up on February 29th, 1944.
I spent three weeks billeted in posh flats at St John’s Wood ‑ marble bathroom floors! Having our meals in the London Zoo restaurant and a pay parade in the Long Room at Lord’s Cricket Ground.
We were kitted out and all the items stamped or marked with indelible pens with our Service Number ‑ mine was 3032854. We had more square bashing, watched V.D. films and had one afternoon being jabbed, inoculated, blood tested ‑ about 20% of my intake collapsed out on the grass outside. Afterwards, we then had to scrub the floors in our billets in the evening ‘to make sure everything circulated’ around our bodies.
I was posted to Newquay and lived in a hotel on the cliff‑top just outside Newquay. We did more drill in the tennis courts, learnt Morse Code, aircraft recognition, Clay Pigeon shooting, how to dismantle and put back together a Browning machine gun. The weather was very warm and for our P.T. we played hockey on the beach ‑ in the team matches there were quite a few bruises through the ball losing itself in the disturbed sand. Posted to Locking, near Weston‑super‑Mare, I learnt basic use of tools and how aero engines worked, and basic fuel, electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems. I did cross‑country running and the P.T. Instructor tried to teach us how to play rugby. We also had to be able to swim 100 yards in the baths ‑ this was a bit of a struggle ‑ but the Instructor said it would be enough in case we had to ditch in the sea and get into our aircraft dinghy.
Posted to St. Athans where we got down to serious working knowledge on fuel systems, pneumatic, hydraulic, electrical systems and emergency back‑ups. Learnt how undercarriages, flaps, bomb‑bays and engine controls, fuel gauges, engine revs and boost all came together.
I concentrated on being a Flight Engineer for a Lancaster bomber ‑ you had to be over 5ft 8ins so that you could rest your feet on the sliding bay while you sat next to the pilot ‑ on the floor was the trap door you parachuted out of. On the way, we did pick up a lot of knowledge for Halifaxes and even the Sunderland flying boats. I passed out on 13th December 1944 ‑ had my end of course leave and, I think, was then sent to Yatesbury holding unit.
After a couple of weeks I was posted to the No. 1666 H.C.U. [Heavy Conversion Unit] where I was chosen by my French Canadian crew (who had been flying Wellingtons and had now converted to Lancaster [Halifax] bombers) to be their Flight Engineer. They always spoke in English when I was with them.
I got kitted up with a flying suit (which I never wore ‑ the cockpit had the hot air from the exhaust of the inner engine coming out beside me) helmet, gloves, long woollen underwear (also never worn), vests and a pair of leather, fur‑lined boots which I always wore when flying.
We did a lot of training ‑ circuits and landings, air to sea firing, night cross‑country, flying, dropping practice bombs, two and three engine landings, also Sweepstakes ‑ diversions for the main bomber force. Also I flew with other pilots as their F.E.
We practiced parachute landings. We also did a bit of dinghy drill ‑ my job as an F.E. was being the first out in a ditching situation, I had to right the big 10ft dinghy if it landed upside down in the water ‑ there was a special technique of pulling a line and kneeling on the rounded side and heaving it the right way up.
We did a final wet practice dinghy drill in the swimming bath. There were several other crews but no one wanted to be the first in the water! I suggested to my skipper that we took the first plunge ‑ we got into flying suits and Mae West’s ‑ I had to jump in first to right the dinghy and my crew followed climbing over the slippery rounded sides ‑ we passed! We climbed out of the bath ‑ took off our wet flying suits ‑ we did have a chuckle when the following crews had to climb into the wet and cold flying suits we had taken off!
On 8th March 1945 we were posted to Tholthorpe (a war‑time drome north of York) to the French Canadian 425 Alouette Squadron ‑ needless to say we were flying Halifax bombers!
This 425 Squadron crew was composed of:
Marcoux F/O J.E. ‑ [J/92848], Pilot,
Montigny F/S R.M.R. ‑ [R/184276], navigator
Roy F/S J.E.G. ‑ [R/219025], wireless air gunner
Ouellet F/O J.P. ‑ [J/42025], bomb aimer
Tremblay F/S L.G. ‑ [R/206597], rear air gunner
Morin Sgt. J.J. ‑ [R/177423], mid-upper air gunner
West Sgt. K.W. ‑ [RAF3032854], flight engineer
The first night there we were put in a hut until we got our own hut for our crew. I said ‘Hello’ to another F.E. who was off to do his first night op. When I woke next morning his bed space had been cleared of all his possessions. He had not come back. Only his shoes were left as they were half‑way between our beds. All aircrew wore shoes and these now became a spare pair for me. A few days later our air‑crew and another were Guard of Honour at the grave‑side of a crew who had crashed after being ‘shot‑up’.
A good introduction to squadron life on a bomber squadron. Next day our crew were taken up by the Flight Commander and Engineering Officer for familiarization of the Halifax bomber. The Engineering Officer showed me the different layout of the fuel cocks, petrol and engine gauges. When we landed my skipper and I were passed out as fully qualified to fly a Halifax bomber.
Over the next few days we went up with other crews and passed them out to fly a Halifax bomber.
A week later we flew cross‑country flights at night dropping practice bombs on a target ‑ we scored top marks! ‑ my Bomb Aimer was a Flying Officer [F/O Ouellet J.P.] and had done several ops on a Wellington bomber.
A F.E.’s duties were to assist the pilot in the take‑off ‑ my hand was behind the four throttle handles helping to increase the engine revs as the Halifax gathered speed. We needed to reach an airspeed of 120mph before we could lift our loaded bomber off the runway. When we were airborne, I lifted the undercarriage and gradually reduced the flaps until shut. We then climbed to our operational height and I adjusted the engine revs and boost controls to maintain our speed but using the minimum amount of fuel. I had a simple calculator which I used to maintain those conditions. I adjusted the pattern of the propellers to become the same on either side to stop the throbbing noise even if the engine rev counter was the same. I then sat next to the skipper admiring the skies in case other aircraft were flying near‑by.
I filled in a log‑sheet every 15 minutes or whenever we changed height. I wrote down engine revs, boost pressure, oil pressures and temperature. I calculated the amount of fuel in the petrol tank in the wings. I then altered the fuel cocks to even the amount of fuel in each tank in case we had a leak ‑ or, on ops, were hit by flak. On return to land, I lowered the flaps fully and, when appropriate, lowered the undercarriage, gradually eased back the throttle to give the pilot both hands to control the landing approach ‑ or, if in an emergency, ram the throttle levers through the gate to give maximum power to over‑shoot the runway. Ten days later after qualifying as a Halifax F.E, our crew was given our own personal bomber, KW-T, with our own dedicated French Canadian ground crew.
Each morning we went out to Dispersal and every member of our crew checked his own position. I had to run the engines to make sure all gauges were functioning; the skipper and I then inspected the ground around the engines to see if there was oil leaking. If OK, he then signed Form 700 (I think!) if he was satisfied.
Twelve days after we arrived at the Squadron [March 21st 1945] we went on our first operation and this was to Rheine. We were woken at about 5.30am, went to our Mess and had a full English breakfast ‑fried egg and ‑ a luxury! ‑ bacon and fried potatoes, toast with real butter on it. We then went to the briefing room. A curtain was pulled back and a large map showing where we were going ‑ this brought some gasps from the crews who had flown before over Germany. The Group Captain then explained the strategic importance of the target. The Operations Officer showed us the route to take avoiding the main towns which had a very large concentration of flak guns to defend them. The Met. Officer told us what the weather would be, cloud base, etc.
We were flying in daylight over the advancing Allied troops, bombing rail and road centres in Germany in front of them. We were to fly at 10,000 feet at two levels of 100 bombers on each level about 100 feet apart in what was called a ‘gaggle’ formation ‑ like a flight of ducks ‑ so as to saturate the target in the shortest time. We then went to our various sections in the briefing room, the F.E. told us how much fuel we had and the bomb load ‑ usually about 11,000 lbs, a mixture of high explosives and incendiaries. We then collected our own chest parachute, tool box, log sheets, escape maps and money, food, sweets, chewing gum. As my crew were French Canadians and Catholic we got blessed by the Roman Catholic Chaplain.
We were taken by the crew bus to our dispersal site ready for a dawn take‑off. My pre‑flight checks: look over the undercarriage, tyres, remove the ground locking bar on the undercarriage, make sure the cover of the air‑speed pitot head was removed, also the H‑Iocking tabs on the tailplane. We then started up the engines and taxied around the perimeter track and awaited our turn for the green light from the Ground Controller for take‑off.
We shared our drome with another Canadian Squadron ‑ No. 420; as we could normally assemble 40 planes between us, it took quite a while. Once the previous plane had cleared the end of the runway, another was signalled off. We then formed up over Whitby Head and flew off.
Each plane had its own Navigator and arrived over the Dutch coast at our operational height of 10,000 feet. I sat next to the skipper keeping a sharp look‑out for any enemy fighters. When we were over Germany I opened the chute beside me and chucked out ‘window’ ‑bundles of silver foil to help confuse the enemy radar. Approaching the target you could see the puffs of black smoke from the flak shells up ahead. A few minutes from the target our bomb‑aimer took over guiding the plane towards the aiming point ‑ those five minutes were the worst part as you were flying at a fixed air speed and height in a straight line and ideal to be picked up by the flak guns.
Once clear of the target you took a set course to avoid the planes above and behind you and headed for home. I then went back to open the trapdoors in the bomb bay with the screwdriver tucked into the back of my flying boots to check for any ‘hungup’ bombs left. We crossed the Dutch coast with about 110 miles of the North Sea to cross. When we arrived back over our drome, we had to circle around and wait for our turn to land.
At the dispersal bay our ground crew welcomed us back and asked if anything needed to be done before our next operation. We were then de‑briefed by our various section leaders and handed our logs in. We then went to our Mess for a late meal. Later in the afternoon my Section Leader said I had used a lot of fuel and must be more careful. One gallon of petrol was used by the four engines to average one mile of flight. I replied that when the fuel gauges read ‘empty’ I changed to another tank as in a Lancaster bomber. He told me that an ‘empty’ reading on a Halifax meant there was still 15 gallons for an emergency left. He said he would have the tanks dip‑sticked and confirmed there was still over 15 gallons left in each of the eight tanks so he said my fuel log was good!
We went next day [22 March 1945] on our second op to Dorsten but, this time, when we were returning over the Dutch coast I asked my skipper if he would reduce speed to the minimum and drop the nose of our plane about 5 degrees ‑ in other words, we were flying ‘downhill’ and reducing our 10,000ft altitude to about 5,000ft when we reached the English coast and going slower. We arrived over our drome and were able to land almost straightaway. Also, I told my crew that I would run one engine on one tank until it spluttered and would then immediately switch to another tank. I had a superb fuel consumption and was congratulated by my Section Leader.
Two days later we went on our third op to Gladbeck [24 March 1945]. We were over the North Sea at 10,000ft when the rear gunner said he was beginning to feel the cold and his heated flying suit was not working and could I come and help him immediately before he got frost bite. I grabbed my tool kit and moved quickly to the rear ‑ it was very cold as I was only wearing my battle dress. I arrived and discovered his flying suit plug had got jammed. Luckily, I was able to fix it, and gladly returned to my warm place next to the hot air over our engines. We were over the target and had just released our bombs when a shell exploded in our tail plane which threw our Halifax on its side. Luckily, our skipper managed to right the plane and pushed open the throttles, dived, and got away smartly.
My French Canadian crew started getting very excited and gabbled in their native French tongue. My skipper apologised for the crew reverting to French when they were scared. He explained that the bomber 100ft above us in the ‘gaggle’ had dropped his bombs down on either side of our fuselage and had been so close he had removed all our radio aerials and navigation aids! We returned back to our drome through ‘dead reckoning’ by our navigator, and by our bomb aimer lying on the floor in the nose of the plane and doing superb map‑reading‑ good job it was a daylight op!
When we arrived over England the whole of Yorkshire was covered in thick fog. The other planes had been diverted by radio to other dromes further south. We had been in the air for nearly six hours and were getting low on fuel and our pilot saw a hole in the fog with a bit of runway showing. He put our plane into a steep dive while we could both see it but, instead of approaching to land at the beginning of the runway, we had to touch down halfway along the runway and zigzag and brake hard until we reached the end of the runway and then swung off at fair speed onto the perimeter track.
When we inspected the damage to the tailplane the hole was big enough for a couple of men to get through ‑ we were lucky that it hadn’t damaged any vital controls. It was nearly a month later when we flew KW-T again. We were given KW-R. Our skipper was promoted to a Flying Officer ‑ he deserved it. About a week later our crew was each presented with a ‘Target Token’, an A4 printed card with an outline of a Lancaster and Halifax on a background of the Canadian maple leaf signed by the Air Vice Marshal commanding No. 6 (RCAF) Group. There was also a copy of the photo taken when we released our bombs over the target and the arrows showed the aiming point ‑ the target of Gladbeck and the date of 24:3:45, and the names of the crew.
It was given to the crew of the plane hitting the target spot‑on for each operation out of all the planes in the Group. Of course, we were helped by our lucky mascot ‑ a knitted black and white cat which we hung in the middle of our windscreen. While on leave I went to visit my sister at her office and met her senior, Barbara, whom I married later ‑ she said our crew should have a mascot and knitted the cat which we received the next week. On the 25th March we went to Munster for our fourth op. We had a few days respite then went to Hamburg on March 31st.
When we got near to the target we had a recall signal telling us not to drop our bombs as the Allied forces were on the outskirts and they didn’t want us to kill them by mistake! We still had our bombs fused and could not release them over friendly land and had to carry them back and release them in the North Sea. Unfortunately, when they calculated the fuel ratio with bomb load they presumed you would be returning without your bombs so wouldn’t be using so much fuel. Having to use the extra fuel to carry the bombs back caused two bombers from our Group to ditch in the North sea as they had run out of fuel. That is why they trained the F.E. to be careful and economical in using his fuel.
It was a long trip ‑ over six hours. While waiting for the next op we flew on exercise practice on the bombing range, air to air firing, and air to sea firing. We normally flew out over Flamborough Head but, on one of the exercises, we saw a lovely camouflaged ship not far away and turned to avoid it but they started firing at us! A bit alarming! We did our sixth op on April 18th to Heligoland and over Germany, in the near distance, we saw an American Flying Fortress box formation. Then, out of nowhere, the new German rocket‑propelled fighter picked off a bomber in the rear, hopped over and shot down a bomber in the centre of the formation, and then fired at one of the Section Leaders and then he was gone. I think they only had a flying time in the air of 10 minutes. I think we only ever once had to take fighter avoidance.
Four days later on April 22nd we did our 7th op. This was to Bremen and quite uneventful and was followed three days later by our 8th op to Wangeroog. As the war was nearly over we just stood down and relaxed ‑ thanking our lucky stars we were the lucky ones who had survived. As you know, the average life of a bomber crew was eight ops.
On May 3rd we did our last flight on our Halifax III a bomber ‑ fighter affiliation when we were attacked by our own planes. On May 6th we had a brand new Canadian Lancaster bomber ‑ a Mark Xa ‑ waiting for us at dispersal. Of course, we were in our element doing circuits and bumps and doing a cross‑country flight. The Canadian Lancasters had different, more up‑to‑date instruments ‑ electrical cutouts instead of fuses; instead of lights for up and down of the undercarriage and flaps there were visual undercarriage wheels and flaps moving up and down.I went on leave and, when I returned a week later, my crew had been sent home as the war was over for them. I was disappointed as we hadn’t said our goodbyes but later I had a letter from my skipper saying they were sorry for the sudden departure and we did keep up a sparse correspondence for a little while afterwards.
Ken West était le frère de cette jeune femme.
Elle avait écrit ce beau poème à Jacques.