FLYING MEMORIES 5
With the OTU course satisfactorily completed I with many others waited eagerly for our names to appear on the notice board, to be posted hopefully to one of the Operational Squadrons in 11 Group somewhere on the south coast, but it was not to be, mainly because the RAF had by now air supremacy and thankfully were not having such a high casualty rate particularly in Fighter Command.
My posting came and I found that I was on my way to a place called Newtownards, N.Ireland. It was 1480 Squadron, stationed just outside Belfast, and consisted of about 8 pilots mainly F/Sgts like myself with a F/O Barrowman as C.O. Although I was cheesed off at being sent there, I soon settled in and have to admit I thoroughly enjoyed my 6-month stay, where I clocked up over three hundred hours, flying six different types of aircraft.
It was here that I converted onto twin-engine aircraft, namely the OXFORD that after 2hrs dual I was given a check by an Sqdn Ldr Robinson and certified safe to go solo.
Our job at Newtownards was mainly Gun Laying for the Army; this entailed us in flying at set heights and courses so that the Gunners could calibrate their guns. On occasions the Guns would fire live ammunition about half a mile away from us, and it was our job to report back if it was in front, above or below, or behind a line parallel with our flight. Gave me quite a good insight what Flak looked like. Otherwise we would attack different gun positions with a view to giving the Brown Jobs practice at laying off deflection on various types of aircraft; sometimes I would attack a position in a BOULTON PAUL DEFIANT and come back half an hour later in a LYSANDER. It was great fun and gave me plenty of flying which was all I wanted. On several occasions I flew from N. Ireland down to Northolt taking senior Army or RAF officers who had business at the War Office and back the next day, or returned the same day on my own. These trips were always done in the Oxford. One day our C.O. was requested to give three Naval Officers a pilotís view of a low-level torpedo attack, being the only other twin-engine pilot available I was given the job.
These chaps thoroughly enjoyed the trip, and I received a message from the skipper of their ship thanking me, stating that it was the first time he had seen a Bow Wave from an aircraft. I am sure he needed his eyes tested. The different aircraft I flew at Newtownards were, Boulton Paul Defiant, Hurricane I & II, Lysander, Tiger Moth, Martinet and the twin engine Oxford I & II.
The journey to and from home when stationed at Newtownards was long and tedious, and on occasions the crossings from Stranraer to Larne were very rough, so I was not too upset when a posting came for me to present myself at 56 OTU Tealing, Nr Dundee. Tealing turned out to be another Hurricane OTU and in the month I was stationed there I had quite a lot of practice at cloud flying, aerobatics, dog - fighting and on one trip took the plane up to its maximum height, which was just over 30,000ft, when it just fell out of the sky. I enjoyed Tealing where a crowd of us would go into Dundee for a drink plus egg and chips. Great days!!
Yet again I had to pack my kit and head back for 55 OTU at Annan on the other side of Scotland, where I continued to increase my flying hours to just over 800 hrs mostly on Hurricane IIs.
It was at Annan that I was introduced to a type of operational flying called Rhubarb.
The formation used in carrying out a Rhubarb is called Finger Formation; it is a loose formation consisting generally of four aircraft spaced about 200 yds from each other. This type of formation allows the leader to concentrate on navigation and the remaining pilots to cover his tail, as well as keeping a sharp lookout for the rest of the formation. These operations were mainly carried out at low level, and with this type of formation each pilot had a good chance of spotting a possible target. I found when I later joined my Operational Squadron that this type of flying was the norm, when close formation was only used to climb or descend through cloud, or on very rare occasions to impress the ground crew on return from a good show. My final few weeks at 55 OTU were spent at the satellite drome called Great Orton where we carried out low level and dive bombing attacks, good fun but would have been better with the real thing rather than dummies. Sent home on leave in the middle of December with orders to report to 198 Sqdn Manston, Kent on the 1st January 1944. My brother Len had by this time won his Wings in America, and was back in this country also to train as a Fighter Pilot, he had been posted to 59 OTU Milfield which had now changed from Hurricanes to the latest and fastest RAF fighter called the HAWKER TYPHOON. The Typhoon in its early days was susceptible to not only a high rate of engine failure but also on several occasions would just break up in the air.
The makers, Hawkers, tried always to rectify the breaking up problem, mainly strengthening the tail unit with metal bands and rivets but this did not eliminate the problem, and it was just pure luck that a plane taxiing out one day that the control stick flew out of the pilots hand, which made him return to the dispersal point. The engineers found that an external mass balance fitted to the tail- plane, had snapped off due to metal fatigue caused by vibration. When this happened in the air it made the aircraft do such a violent manoeuvre that it just broke the plane in half, with no hope of escape for the pilot.
The problem was solved quite easily by shortening the length of the bar holding the weight, and placing the whole thing inside the structure of the tail -plane unit. Len had the nasty experience of watching a Typhoon coming into land breaking in half on the down wind leg of the circuit, as he was waiting clearance for take off at the end of the runway.
Len who had now flown the Typhoon before I had even set eyes on one, was to be posted at the end of his course to BURMA to fly Hurricanes with the very large Tank Busting 40mm Cannons, and was lucky to survive the war, after completing many operational sorties under horrible living conditions and treacherously dangerous terrain to fly over, not to mention the Monsoons and all the nasty diseases that prevailed out there. Although I had seen pictures of the Typhoon and the odd one in the air, I had never set eyes on one until I arrived at Manston in Kent, neither did I know about any of the troubles. I was over the moon to be posted to one of the top Squadrons in Fighter Command, which at that time was stationed in the thick of all the action in 11 Group. I joined the squadron on the same day as F/O Denis Sweeting and a couple of days later two F/Sgts called Stratford and Mason arrived. We were all billeted at Westgate and were taken by liberty bus to and from the drome. We were welcomed by our C.O S/Ldr Johnny Baldwin DFC & Bar who told us a bit about the success the squadron was enjoying at the time, and were then instructed to report to our respective Flight Commanders.
Bill Stratford, Don Mason, Denis Sweeting and myself were allocated to "B" flight, under the watchful eye of a N.Z. F/Lt called Bluey Dall our flight commander. Bluey sent us to stores to collect our Dinghies, Parachutes and other flying equipment including Helmets, Goggles and Oxygen Masks. On our return to the flight line we were introduced for the very first time to the seven - ton monster called a HAWKER TYPHOON.
The plane had an enormous engine and four 20mm cannons protruding from the wings, it appeared to be at least twice the size of a Hurricane. It was so strong that there was no harm being done when all five of us climbed up onto the wing for a briefing on the cockpit layout by Bluey. I know at first that I had doubts if I would be able to handle such an awesome beast, but I soon came to love and enjoy the Tiffy, particularly after I had heard all the scary stories about them, plus the fact that they were supposed to be terrors on take - off, liable to swerve 30 degrees off course if not carefully handled.
Manston was the nearest aerodrome to France and had been subjected to numerous attacks during the Battle of Britain, it was, at the beginning of 1944, an all grass aerodrome, with just large concrete hard standings on which the squadron aircraft were parked when not airborne. The planes were parked either side of the hard standing with about 8 -10 aircraft each side pointing inwards, with a space between used for taxiing. The Squadron also had an old Hurricane, in which we were initially sent off to familiarize ourselves with the surrounding countryside for about 1 hour each. Manston was also very susceptible to sea fog swirling in over the drome in a matter of minutes, and also dispersing just as fast but occasionally would hang around for a considerable time. On the 16th Jan.1944 having read the handling notes several times, plus all the other information one was required to know now being a member of an operational squadron, I was allocated the oldest Tiffy in the squadron in which to experience my first flight.