Ken West’s RAF Memoirs – Part II

Ken West n’a plus revu son équipage à la fin de la guerre.

Eudore Marcoux et son équipage

Voici la suite de ses mémoires de guerre que j’ai trouvées sur Internet.

Ken West’s RAF Memoirs -Part II

A few days later I was posted to Leeming, the HQ of the Canadian Bomber 6 Group, a peacetime drome.

As soon as I arrived I was picked to be the F.E. for a newly-converted crew from Wellingtons -F. Officer Hughes was the Skipper and a few days later took a few ground crew on a ‘Cook’s Tour’ along the French coastline. On June 5th, we spent an afternoon picking up bombs and dumping them in the North Sea and went to another Canadian drome and picked up 14 containers of incendiaries and dropped them in the Irish Sea.

A few days later my Skipper returned to Canada and, on June 26th, another F. Engineerless crew, F.O. Marshall as Skipper, grabbed me. We spent the next week picking up and dumping bombs in the North Sea and even went back to my old drome -Tholthorpe -and managed to pick up and drop another thirty-six containers of incendiaries in the Irish Sea. As the Canadians were waiting to go home and be de-mobbed our ground crew became a bit slack in maintenance and we had several things found where they shouldn’t have been on various other planes. We solved this by picking a ground crew every time we went on another trip -careful maintenance improved quickly.

Peacetime was very different from war time at a permanent drome. I shared a room in married quarters with another English F.E. and, in theory, we only worked a five day week. At the weekend you could get a leave pass from your Section Leader -or your Skipper providing he was a Flying Officer in rank -and you could go home after we finished on Friday afternoon. I knew the times of all the trains to London and spent my weekends with Barbara -the young lady I later married. She saw me off to York from Kings Cross at 11pm on a Sunday and I slept in our local train on the bay platform which later delivered us at the station near Leeming, and an RAF coach took us back to Leeming ready to start work again.

On one trip (across country) over France we took our Chief Technical Officer with us as a passenger. We were all set to cross the Channel when the starboard outer engine ran away the propeller went faster and faster and I was unable -in theory -to feather it (turn the propeller blades sideways on so they just stopped). The Chief Technical Officer tried, we gave up and I helped my Skipper to try and keep the plane flying straight but to no avail as we were going round in ever smaller circles. We spotted an aerodrome -Stubby -and attempted to land on the runway -no second go would be possible. I went through the process for a landing. Suddenly they fired a red flare at us and I suddenly remembered I had not lowered the undercarriage, being so busy helping the Skipper keep the Lancaster on a straight and level flight. The undercarriage was hydraulically operated -it went down and locked just as we touched down and the wheels hit the runway. It was a close thing. Having the Chief Technical Officer as a passenger I didn’t have to make a report and walked to the Sergeant’s Mess and had my first half a pint of beer!

Each morning, we reported to our Section and our Skipper told us if we were flying that day. If we were, the whole crew went out to Dispersal to do their check ready for our flying. When we had no flying to do, we played Pontoon for threepenny bits -if you lost it amounted to a lot of money by the end of the week. I came home one weekend and was glancing through the local paper and saw a Meccano set for sale. Dressed in ‘civvies’ I went to see the gentleman selling the set and bought it. I asked him why he was selling it and he replied that he had been called-up for National Service. I failed to tell him that I was in the RAF and was taking the Meccano set back with me! I used it until my flying finished at the end of 1945 and it then kept me occupied until I was sent to Whitton, near Blackpool, at the end of February 1946. At the beginning of September we did a pre-Italy cross-country flight across France which took over five and a half hours to get ready to fly ‘Dodge’, a trip to Pomigliana -to bring home 24 ‘Desert Rats’ (sitting during the flight on the top of the bomb bay) for early de-mob in October. On October 6th , we flew in a ‘gaggle’ formation over York and Leeds to open their ‘Thanksgiving Week’.

After several more French cross country runs, we finally made our ‘Dodge’ trip -6h 40m -via the Alps on October 20th . In theory, we flew out to Pomigliana one day, had a day’s rest and, in theory, flew home the next day. In practice, as the year was getting late we either had bad weather over the Alps or over England and stayed in Italy until November 3rd . We lived off the plentiful supply of cigarettes provided by the Canadian Red Cross -I think each Canadian got a 200 pack every week. As you may or may not know, cigarettes were the currency after the war in the countries we took over after the Germans surrendered. The Italians paid you 1200 lira for a packet of 20 and, when you made the transaction, you passed over the cigarettes into their hand at the same time as you grabbed the 1200 lira. The Italians were very good at palming the 1000 lira note and running away. Once the trick back fired on them -our Skipper had an empty packet but got paid for it.

During our stay we of course lived in the Sergeant’s Mess so we lived a tourist’s life. One day we went to the Isle of Capri and visited Pompeii and saw the bodies, etc. when the disaster struck -most impressive. On November 3rd, we were told we had to fly home regardless of the weather as the backlog of ‘Desert Rats’ was piling up. We did a miniature Cook’s Tour over Mount Vesuvius and the Isles of Capri and Ispuir, and the Bay of Naples. As we had 24 troops in our plane, we were unable to fly above 10,000 feet through lack of oxygen. We were also told not to leave our parachutes lying around in case it gave the troops the idea we might bale out and leave them. As we had to fly over the Alps and 10,000 feet didn’t leave us that much room, we had to take the shortest route between Italy and England. Needless to say, we got caught in cumminis clouds and a lot of air pockets. One of these made the outer wings of the Lancaster go up and down like a large bird -scary. Also, we started having ice form on our wings and we had no de-icer units to remove it. When we finally got near England the weather was so foggy we got diverted to St Mawgan, an emergency landing drome in Cornwall. The flight took us seven and a quarter hours and were we glad when we landed safely!
We inspected the outer wings of our Lancaster and found that several rivets had popped out of the joint where it joined the inner wing. We flew home three days later and the plane was put in the ‘US’ dispersal never to fly again. That was the last of my flying as aircrew. I clocked up 235 hours 37 minutes plus 31 hours 54 minutes night flying. It was an interesting part of my life.

At the beginning of March 1946 I was posted to Weston near Blackpool on a DMT (Driver Motor Transport) course. It was only a three-week course -the shortest way to acquire a ‘trade’ in the RAF. Aircrew were not ‘trade’ in the post-war RAF. As there were so many aircrew not doing anything ‘useful’ and we had very low de-mob numbers, it was a quick wayto acquire a ‘trade’. We were posted overseas to bring back the ‘regulars’ for de-mob. We were taught by the BSM -three in a car for half a day, every day for two weeks. The other half of the day was spent learning about maintenance and how brakes and engines worked. We were passed out by BSM and then the Board of Trade Instructors took us out in the three-ton lorries (Dodge, Bedford and Thornycrofts) with crash gear boxes which needed a double de-clutch gear change. The worst part of driving was meeting the Blackpool trams coming the other way when you were trying to overtake the tram in front of you. We always stopped for our ‘elevenses’ at a well-known lorry cafe on the outskirts of Blackpool where we had ‘toast with marg’. It was something to remember -especially the mugs of tea. When the Board of Trade examiners passed us out, the final test was to drive a high-level Bedford down a slope into a pond. The water came up through the floorboards to just below the pedals -a bit scary. We were given a green form (a full licence) which we could use when we acquired a car of our own without having to take a civilian driving test. I redeemed mine in 1964 when I got my first car. I was posted to Yatesbury in Worcestershire where I shared a room with my future Best Man, ‘Titch’ Gurney -so named because he was shorter than me. He had a wind-up gramophone and several good records that we enjoyed listening to together in the evenings. We were posted to go to the Far East (Japan) and took the train to Newhaven and then a boat to Dieppe. A train took us across France to Toulon where we boarded a ‘Liberty’ ship converted to a troop ship. We tried to sleep in the hammocks. Titch and I were in charge of the dish-washing machine while on board. We anchored at Malta on one beautiful summer Mediterranean day and then proceeded to Alexandria in Egypt.

We travelled the length of the Suez Canal by train to a transit camp at El’ Aiyat. It was a tented camp with brick walls around the outside of the tents to keep out the sand and creepycrawlies. It was very hot during the day but the nights were quite chilly. While we were there we visited the Dead Sea and ‘tried’ to swim in it! Outside our camp was a large Bedouin tent where we were allowed to peep in and watch the ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’. I was called into the Adjutant’s office and asked whether I would like to go back to Naples instead of going to the Far East as my ten day stay on the ‘Dodge’ trip had already counted as ‘overseas’ service. He was ex-aircrew and I asked whether Titch Gurney could come with me. He said ‘yes’ as he had noted that we went around together. We went up the Suez Canal by boat to Alexandria and took a passenger ferry to Naples. The base was a little way out of Naples and had a lovely view over the Bay of Naples. After a couple of days I was asked if I would drive about twelve airmen to the railway station in Naples. I started off driving on the continental (right) side of the road but, when I got to the square in Naples, I got confused and went round the wrong way. You should have heard the blowing of horns from all the little Fiats!

We then went by train to the peace-time Italian aerodrome at Treviso where we were billeted in some fabulous rooms in the Sergeant’s mess -marble floors and big windows which overlooked a river. I reported to the DMT Section and Titch and I were given a 15cwt Chevy, a truck for taking Spitfire pilots from the mess to Dispersal. We became great friends with the regular Flight Sergeant of the Motor Transport Section. We maintained our vehicle according to the daily schedule so, if any Officer wanted to get into Treviso, he could be sure of getting there and back safely.

One of my regular runs was to collect a dozen large blocks of ice from the ice factory in Treviso every day. Not knowing any Italian, I went into the town but couldn’t find the factory. I asked some locals where it was. I acted ‘shivering’ and, pointing to the nearby stream, saying ‘giachio, giachio’ (ice-cream). They laughed and pointed down a small street and there was the factory! Of course, in those days, fridges weren’t around so the ice was broken to keep things cool. Another of my jobs was to take the Officers’ wives into town to shop so we kept our vehicle clean -even the floor. I also had to go to RAF Headquarters at Undine once a fortnight to collect a sack of Lira to pay the wages of the personnel on the drome. The first time the Accounts Officer asked me if I would take a rifle to protect the cash we were carrying. I said that I hadn’t handled a rifle for over two years and didn’t intend handling one now as I might have killed myself firing it in the small cab of my 15cwt Chevy. So the Officer and I travelled with the sack of lira between us. One night on duty I got a phone call from an Officer in Venice who had got an attack of malaria. He wanted me to pick him up and bring him back to the Sick Bay. I was a Flight Sergeant by then, so I used my rank and drove to Venice and brought him back. The next day the Duty Officer said I should have got authorisation from him first. I replied that I knew how desperate the Officer was for help and had no time to find him in the Officers’ Mess. Each day we started work at 5.30am and finished at 1pm. It was very hot in the summer and, in the afternoons, we paddled a Spitfire drop-feed tank up and down the river.

One evening the Group Captain phoned and asked me to bring his car down to Treviso so that he could drive his wife and friends back to base. The car had a lorry engine under the bonnet and a gear change on the steering column and I’d never driven it before. I started off in bottom gear and then a violent storm erupted. A flash of lightning blinded me and I drove the car off the side of the road into a ditch. I abandoned the car and went back to the Sergeants’ Mess and told my friend the Flight Sergeant in charge of the workshops what had happened. He said not to worry as he would pull the car out of the ditch and leave it outside the Group Captain’s home. I then drove down to Treviso in my 15cwt and told the Group Captain what had happened. He was not very pleased as he and his guests had to sit on the bare boards of my Chevy. It all ended happily. His car was standing outside his home when he got back. My Flight Sergeant had turned up trumps!

I drove my lorry to Cortina twice for a long weekend with twelve of the RAF Ski Team. Titch Gurney was the co-driver. The 3 ton Dodge had a long gear lever and, as we were climbing up a very steep zigzag road, the gear lever wobbled into neutral and we started going backwards -a bit scary! I also had a short spell as driver of the station fire-engine. When I wanted to try out the pumps, the crew and the German POWs said ‘no’ as it meant unwinding the hose reels then drying them out. I thought ‘what a shame!’ During the autumn of 1946, the whole station moved up to Judenburg in the mountains of Austria. The Spitfire Squadron were to be used in the Trieste war (between the Italians and the Yugoslavians). Titch and I were left behind to load up the Group Captain’s possessions. We drove them to Kalenfurt and were told to stay with the lorry. We slept in the cab (the first and only time I didn’t sleep in a bed). The next morning the Group Captain swept into the Car Park and we were told to follow him. By the time we had reversed out he had vanished up the road. We came to a T junction where there was no signpost. We took the wrong turning and, after an hour, finished up on the side of a narrow mountain road. Realising we’d made a mistake we found a bit of a ledge and started doing three point turns -about thirty in all! It was a near thing as the lorry tailboard hung over the edge several times! When we eventually arrived at the Judenburg drome the Station warrant Officer said he was about to send out a search party and he was very pleased to see us safe and sound.

There was an ex-aircrew Officer in charge of the Section and he said it was time we were promoted in our own ‘trade’. He asked us a few easy questions and said we would now get confirmation that we were LACs (Leading Aircraft Men). This meant that we had an unusual title in our pay-books -Flight Sergeant, Flight Engineer, Leading Aircraftman, DMT. A few days later I was told to report to the Adjutant and was asked if I would like to run the Station’s Print Workshop. I said ‘Yes!’. Titch and I were also asked if we would like to drive the Allis Chalmer snow plough as we had the LAC rank in the ‘trade’. Most of the other drivers were National Service personnel with no ‘trade’ rank behind them. We checked oil and anti-freeze in the radiator and only ever topped up with almost pure anti-freeze as the winter can be very cold in the middle of the mountains. I printed local telephone directories for all the RAF Stations in the area. I printed forms and the Cinema posters. The only snag was that the different countries had brought in different cases of type and the type heights weren’t the same. To make up some print jobs, I had to put a couple of layers of paper under each line. The printing machine was an automatic Eidelburgh. Where I had worked previously I used a foot pedal cropper but I soon got the hang of this machine and produced some good work.

As we were in the mountains we could see the snowfall line moving down every day until it snowed solidly for a few days. We then had to drive the snowplough up and down the run way and the Dispersal to allow our Spitfires to do their missions. The best part of the job was the cup of tea with a dash of rum in it that we were given every time we’d gone up and down the runway. By the time we’d finished the job the lines weren’t quite as parallel. Several times we were called out to go on the road and attach the front of our snowplough to the nearest tree and to use the wire winch to haul lorries back on to the road.

The job of the six-wheel crane driver came up and, with my LAC Trade rank, I applied for it as it was one of my ambitions to drive a crane. I had to go for an interview and they said they would like to accept me but, unfortunately, my rank and pay as a Flight Sergeant prevented me from being given the job! It was a post for an ordinary airman to be promoted to a Corporal. I was disappointed. I was billeted in a room in a wooden hut with a round iron fire to heat the room. The windows were double windows. When I awoke the first day an ex-Austrian soldier gave me a wake-up call and, when I asked him what he wanted, he said he was the hut’s batman and did I want my shoes cleaned! I was astounded and said ‘no, thank you’. He then said he would light the stove and bring the coal in every day, clicked his heels together and disappeared.

Christmas 1946 was the first peace-time and coincided with a 4 day Christmas break. There was nothing to do so everyone had a merry drinking time. As I was not a drinking man I retired to my hut and finished collating a Group Telephone Directory. Boxing Day afternoon, I smelt smoke and, turning around, I noticed smoke creeping out from under the door. I dressed, collected all my personal belongings and opened the double windows and dumped my kit and all the Telephone Directories outside on the road and waited for the fire engine to arrive. It arrived fairly soon but the crew were slightly ‘happy’ and, when they tried to connect the inlet hose to the hydrant, the fittings were not compatible so they just stood there and laughed. We had other spectators with their girlfriends coming out of other huts. All of a sudden, a voice boomed out telling everyone to return to their huts, etc. -a new Regular Group Captain had arrived on Christmas Day and things started to tighten up -parades, saluting Officers, etc. Early in the New Year, the Trieste affair was settled and the Spitfires were sent elsewhere and the drome was given back to the Austrians.

I was asked where I would like to be posted when I returned to England in a few days. I thought, why not return to the York area as I know all the train times? As is normal RAF procedure, I was sent in the opposite direction to Kidbrook in South London. I didn’t do any more driving but was escorting NCOs on a mail service from RAF Headquarters Kingsway to various other mailing sections in the London area. I remember we used to do a regular hourly service to Oxford St. and Victoria. When we finished at 5pm I would go down the steps of the tram subway and catch the tram to the Angel, Islington and walk down to Northampton Square to meet Barbara, my fiancée. We would then walk to her home and have a super tea with her family. About 10pm, I would walk back to the Angel Tube Station and catch my train to Kidbrook. It was a nice ending to my three and a half years in the RAF. I was de-mobbed in June 1947.

Une réflexion sur “Ken West’s RAF Memoirs – Part II

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