1 - Early Stirrings
I must have been eleven or twelve years old when I first caught the aviation bug. Prior to the attack by this virus, my aim in life had been to fulfill a desire to become a professional footballer, an ambition shared by the vast majority of young Scotsmen and, for a non-Catholic like me, it had to be Glasgow Rangers or bust. I had a bit of a head-start on others as I could boast that my father had been a professional with Coventry City. Also, I had been a pupil at a junior school on the southern border of Glasgow and had been said to be one of a trio of dead-cert football 'pros' in the making - the other two being Bobby Mitchell and Johnny Gould. A year younger than me, Bobby was in the class below and eventually played for Third Lanark, Newcastle United and Scotland, while Johnny Gould, one year older and in the class above, played for Celtic around the 1939-40 period. We three were what Scotsmen know as 'tanner-baw' players, learning our dribbling skills with a sixpenny ball in the close confines of the school playground amid dozens of boisterous boys. At the end of World War Two, I nearly became a pro-footballer too, but by then football had a competitor for my services.
A couple of years before I got the aviation bug, I began to have an urge to get better equipped educationally, probably spurred on by reading about the adventures of Harry Wharton & Co, Billy Bunter and the Bounder etc in the Magnet every week. Two schoolboy neighbours of mine, both about two years older and sometimes requiring an additional body with some sporting ability, invited me to join them occasionally. Both were of a different mould than the mostly working-class offspring population of my junior school. Jimmy McNeil's home was the germinating ground; his father was a well-respected joiner with what appeared to be a sound business (he owned a car, for example, when few others could) and his son Jimmy was attending Hutcheson's Grammar, one of Glasgow's élite schools, providing first class education for sons of parents with money to pay the fees. Tom Fulton was the other, a fresh-faced blond-haired boy who was regarded as a lad with the likely future of a brilliant product of the Scottish education system; he was of a family which did not have the wherewithal to buy his education. But Tom was attending Allan Glen's, a boys' fee-paying school, yet one which allowed scholarship entry at no cost. Tom had won a scholarship to Allan Glen's and was on his way. Listening to the finer quality of conversation in this company and to be able to take a halting part in it, made me want to attend this 'Greyfriars of the North', a school with a high (some would say the highest) reputation in Scotland for its output of scientists and engineers. Both Jimmy's and Tom's were rugby-playing schools however, so there was a bit of a tug-of-war in my family as to my intentions, since I suspected that my father had visions of his footballer son playing for Rangers and Scotland. Anyway, when the Qualifying Examination (the Scottish 11-Plus) was approaching, a decision had to be made. My main junior school mate and I were fairly bright academically and we were the 'pets' of 'Pa' Wright, our schoolmaster, who put us forward as candidates for the Allan Glen's scholarship examination. We were both successful in the competition, so the time ahead saw a shift to academic areas hitherto not thought of - one being, in my case, aerodynamics.
My aviation career started to take shape when I persuaded my parents that my next combined Christmas and birthday present (I was born on Christmas day) would be acceptable only if it was a Frog model fighter aeroplane with an 0.005hp elastic-driven power unit! I tried unceasingly to position ailerons, elevators and rudder to achieve the sort of flight profiles I wanted - without any significant success I have to admit. But it had set the ball rolling and a year or two later my family began to rent a 'gite' annually at Prestwick, on the Ayrshire coast, for our summer holidays. They were not aware that in doing so they had cemented my interest absolutely, since just up the road from the gite was Prestwick aerodrome, then a green field with a scattering of Avro Ansons. On a subsequent holiday in 1938, Hawker Hurricane fighters of No 602 'City of Glasgow' Squadron hurtled around from Abbotsinch, beating up the beaches on the Firth of Clyde at low level and high speed. If only I could ....... !
2 - The Long Wait to Initial Training Wing
In 1938, one was not certain that war was coming but the signs were ominous. About this time I was being pressurised to go out and bring some money into the family. The most attractive job for someone in my position then was the steady 'get in, get a reasonably good salary and get security for life' type. I found I could get entry to such a job by taking an entrance exam for the clerical class of the Civil Service, the Glasgow Corporation, or the LNER or LMS railway companies. I picked the LNER in which, once started, one had the possibility of early progression to a higher echelon provided that a further exam, to a rank termed 'traffic-apprentice' was successfully taken - which would be a set-up to attaining the highest positions in the service's administration. So, having taken and passed the clerical class exam, there appeared to be no reason to continue normal schooling to Higher Leaving Certificate standard, which was simply an alternative to qualification by the LNER exam. I left school, therefore, when LNER confirmed that a post would be offered.
I was appointed as a booking clerk of a minor Glasgow railway station at the age of 17 and then, in 1939, to an office in the headquarters in George Square in the city. The booking clerk job meant alternate late and early shifts, changing weekly. The Station Master worked a 9am to 5pm stint, which meant that the booking clerks ran the Station in his absence from 6am to 9am for the early shift clerk, and from 5pm to 10pm for the late shift clerk - a bit breathtaking for a lad in his teens!
About this time I noticed advertisements in the newspapers for entry to an RAF apprenticeship at the School of Technical Training at Halton. I considered there might be a possibility for a scholarship, via Halton, to become a cadet at the Royal Air Force College at Cranwell, and aircrew. The application forms came back for filling in, but were intercepted by my father who refused to sign his consent. All seemed lost and I was somewhat disheartened at the time. But with the outbreak of war in 1939 my chance to fly would come.
My permanent position with LNER meant that I was in a reserved occupation, ie I could not be called up for service in the Forces, and was 'deferred'. Later on, once the war was well under way, this rule was relaxed. I then found that I could volunteer for entry to the RAF as aircrew in spite of the deferment. With no requirement now for the consent of my parents, I sent off the application forms and prayed for the chance to talk the RAF into signing me on. I had asked in my application for Wireless Operator/Air Gunner (WOP/AG) never considering I could be taken on as Pilot or Observer, for which I thought a degree qualification would probably be needed.
Meanwhile, I had moved to the Passenger Staff Superintendent's Department in the city, as clerk in charge of the issue of staff privilege tickets and free passes for the Western Scottish area, where I found I could handle all the work involved in about one or two hours per day. So, to avoid total boredom, I volunteered my help to the other clerks in my particular sub-department and in a short time was reasonably conversant with most of the tasks therein. The unit was staffed by about ten clerks from Class 1 to Class 5, plus, in his own sanctuary, the Special Class boss of the sub-department. I had already, of course, some considerable knowledge of the passenger sector working of the railway, from my booking office experience, due to its all-embracing, though small, application to the matters affecting a Station and its passengers, eg ticketing procurement and issue, ticketing and cash accounting, quarterly audit reports, paybill compilation and calculation for the station personnel, ticket and timetable advice to passengers, and all that is involved in goods carriage by passenger train.
Thus I knew much of the matters affecting my appointment's work as well as those of several of my colleagues before I sat down to my own work in the post. For example, one of the Class 3 clerks became ill and his main task was the production of paybills for the headquarters non-salaried staff, which occupied virtually all of his time. I was already well-experienced in this field and completed his work quite satisfactorily during his absence. When I tell you of the staffing league table and its annual incremental intervals, you will wonder, as I did, why the system wasn't sharpened up a bit. Class 5 was the lowest grade, into which I was posted on joining the LNER service. Promotion to Class 4 on time served would not occur until the age of 31, if my memory serves me right. Time in Class 4 to its top increment was about seven or eight years, with similar intervals up the scale. Salary was increased annually until the top of the band was reached, then remained there until you jumped the hurdle, by selection, to the next band. Although my position as a substantive employee was held for me until the end of the war, can you blame me for then preferring some other type of employment?
With time on my hands, I decided to make some preparation for the impending RAF interview, if and when it came, and also went into training to buff up my physical fitness which I knew would require near-perfection. In my days down at Prestwick I had browsed amongst the books on aviation in a well-stocked local bookshop. Aviation books had begun to appear, mainly superficial write-ups on such types as the Hurricane and the Supermarine Spitfire, and some enemy aircraft, and several books on aircraft recognition were sought after by the amateur aircraft spotters as the war in the air took on greater importance. But there was nothing much on the intricacies of the business till I flicked through the pages of a book by a noted aerodynamicist, which I purchased, enabling me to bone up on lift, drag, stalling, aircraft controls, slats and flaps - until it was coming out of my ears. I also (unnecessarily as it turned out) felt I had to extend my maths knowledge because I had become aware from my reading that astro-navigation required the solution of spherical triangles to fix a geographic position, unaware that the use of a sextant and astro-tables provided all that was needed. Time wasted perhaps, but at least I had learned the fundamentals.
To complete my preparations it seemed necessary to demonstrate my patriotism. My ex-schoolmate and I joined Dad's Army. We proudly donned our rough khaki every other evening after work and marched up to our HQ (Queen's Park FC reserve team ground at Hampden Park) to mount guard against a possible Hun parachute drop on our post. We were equipped with the standard broom handles at first, but soon had a Browning 0.303-inch machine gun which was pulled to pieces every evening for three months until the whole Company could recite the nomenclature, eg 'the belt-feed-cam-pawl-withdrawal-spring' and so on. The Browning was never fired in my time there, in fun or in anger. I have to say, however, that it was mounted and ready to fire during all the air raids on Glasgow. I felt a right 'Private Pike' amongst many 'Corporal Joneses'.
In the early Spring of 1941, I could see that my civilian life was running out and that the military one had to commence soon. I could only hope and pray that it would be in the light blue of the RAF; the thought of trench warfare in the Army or life in the bilges of an RN destroyer filled me with depression. But at last the letter from the RAF arrived asking me to report to a recruiting office in Edinburgh. I went through to Waverley Station one morning in April and entered the building with my nerves jangling. Oddly, there were no other persons waiting and so no competitive feeling to worry about. This settled me down remarkably. A Squadron Leader with an Observer's brevet greeted me and quickly set me at ease. He seemed to be impressed by the strength of my ambition and the preparations I had made. He then asked why I wished to be a WOP/AG. When I told him that I wanted aircrew or nothing, he repeated his question and then said ''Would you not rather be a pilot?''. I could hardly believe my ears. I said ''But I thought I would need a BSc or similar qualification for that''; he then said ''OK son, we'll put you down for pilot then, shall we?'' I could scarcely reply.
I came out of the building after a short medical, into the streets of Edinburgh, in a bit of a dream. I felt that I had to tell someone so I went into the nearest Post Office and sent a telegram to my parents - ''Passed with flying colours, for pilot; will be home on the 5.30 from Waverley''. A bit melodramatic and of course there was no need of the telegram. It must have been depressing news for them, as it was the opposite for me.
The Record of Service in my flying log book shows that I reported for duty at No 1 Reception Wing, Babbacombe, near Torquay in Devon, on 5 July 1941 after a long and tedious train journey from Glasgow the previous day - a journey beset by lengthy stops during the night because of air raids. I was nineteen years old and my flying career had really begun.
3 - The Gathering of the 'White Flash' Boys
The Reception Wing at Babbacombe was merely a 'get in, get your kit, get it on your back and get out' unit. We were marched about, initially in our civilian clothes, and waited interminably in corridors for our turn in swearing the oath and getting jabs, flying kit, uniform, Form 1250 (ID card) etc. Finally, after one week exactly, we queued for our rail tickets to Initial Training Wing (ITW) - our destination for a more prolonged stay. There were several Initial Training Wings spotted at well known former holiday resorts around the country, at one of which the cadet would spend his next ten weeks of service on ground training. Hotels at these resorts had been requisitioned to house the thousands of RAF cadets who would pass through on their way to glory or oblivion. I was chosen to occupy a bedroom at the Grand Hotel, Scarborough, No 10 ITW, in the company of several other room-mates. ITW appeared to be totally dominated by a group of Physical Training Instructors (PTI) perpetually dressed in white pullovers. The curriculum was devoted to reading the riot act, RAF law, and the PSI (an abbreviation which, I seem to remember, represented the cash fund of the President of the Services Institute; I don't believe any RAF man had the faintest notion who this President was, but we were fairly certain that the PSI was a fund which could be plundered by clever officers). There was also a bit of navigation plotting, some practise in Morse code, and drill, drill, drill. But at night we dressed ourselves in our bright new uniform with the luminous distinguishing badge of our trade (the white flash in our forage cap) denoting that we were the cream of the cream, aircrew cadets with Brylcreemed hair. I did not drink or smoke then, so what my new friends and I got up to I cannot remember; but showing ourselves off to the public might be near the mark.
It was at this unit that I saw for the first and only time an officer of a military Service weeping in front of his men. In the middle of a groundschool period we were summoned en masse to report to the main room of the building. The Squadron Leader CO of the unit came in when we had all gathered; I was in the front row of the seats. He announced the dreadful news that we had among us at the hotel a 'tea-leaf', indeed a 'half-incher'. He appealed to this person to give himself up, otherwise there would be a blot on the unit's escutcheon, at which point I could see the tears begin. It was quite embarrassing, believe me. Whoever was the thief was not caught, as far as I know.
The course continued and I felt myself getting fitter and fitter. Lots of sporting activity took place on the beach immediately below the hotel. On the landward side was another ITW (No 11, I think) also housed in an hotel. The area between the two buildings was used as a parade ground for both ITWs. After five weeks had elapsed, half-way through the course, we were suddenly ordered to get into our 'best blue' uniform and polish up for an inspection parade. When we were suitably lined up, the PTIs carried out a meticulous pre-inspection and, to repeated cries of ''Quiet in the ranks'' we hissed to each other ''What the hell is going on?''. Soon a staff car appeared on the scene and out stepped a gallant Air Commodore, taking his place (after much saluting here and there) in front of us. A super-inspection, we thought, but no instructions were given to open-order march. He then declared to the throng that, due to the exigencies of the Service (how often was I to hear that one?) our time at ITW had to be truncated and we were forthwith to move out for a posting to a flying training unit in a foreign country, and we would be deemed now to have completed the ITW course. He then inspected us, or rather moved amongst us, speaking to a few and wishing us bon voyage. This officer with the very thick single rank-band on his sleeve, wings and masses of gongs on his chest, seemed like God to me.
Two days later we had packed all our gear and moved off in the late afternoon of 18 August 1941 to board a special train at Scarborough railway station, encumbered by kitbag, full pack and full haversack. Our immediate destination was the transit camp at RAF Wilmslow, just south of Manchester. We arrived at Wilmslow station after midnight. There was no transport, so we had to march. It is quite a distance from the station to the camp (about one-and-a-half miles) and even when you got to the Guard Room you could have a good further half-mile to go to reach the right section hut. With all our kit to be carried, the journey was horrendous, fit as we were. When we finally reached the required hut, the agony continued with the supply of blankets to be signed for and then carried to our quarters, a bell-tent with nothing to illuminate the scene but a single oil lamp (exposed lights were frowned upon in blacked-out Britain then). Mud surrounded the area, kit was piled anywhere a space could be found and it was an utter shambles. But our spirits were lifted to some extent by rumours doing the rounds that we were to go to the USA for the start of our flying training.
We spent the next few days in the stores queue, the medical queue and several other queues. Then each of us was issued with a large suitcase of the cheapest cardboard obtainable, then off to an area where hung dozens of light-grey civilian suits and where we were invited to play the lottery of trying to find a suit which fitted. Finally, we were all packed off on leave for a few days to say goodbye to our dear ones. When we returned, we collected our suitcases (I can't remember how our kitbags were dealt with) and marched back the way we had come from the railway station so shortly before, with the general public staring at us in amazement. Did they think it was the Military deserting them, leaving them to their fate under Herr Hitler? I was not sorry to see the back of the place and presumed that I would never see it again. Twenty years later however, I drove up that same road from the station to the officer's married quarter on RAF Wilmslow which I was to occupy during my final tour in the service of the RAF.
4 - A Pleasure Cruise on an Ocean-Going Liner - Or Two
Some six-hundred-and-forty white-flashed cadets stepped off the train at Greenock railway station on 25 August 1941 and stood around close to the pier with suitcases ready for loading on to a lighter. The weary check of name, rank and number was made by the transit personnel and then we too were loaded. A short sail followed to the grey-painted Duchess of Atholl at anchor in the middle of the Firth of Clyde where we embarked. It was the only sailing we were to do for a while. Down the gangways we descended into the depths of the liner and to one of the many mess decks where we scrambled to plant ourselves and our kit on the hammock occupying the most favourable position - I never resolved where that position was, since I calculated that a U-boat torpedo coming through the thin skin of the hull made such a choice irrelevant. The convoy had begun to form up.
We had expected to wait for possibly a day or so before the starting gun was fired. Occasionally the ship's engines were turned over and we rushed to the upper deck to watch the activity. But it was all false alarms and merely the engineer officer below checking out his equipment. To pass the time, poker schools for the gamblers spread like a disease, as did 'patience' for those wishing to retain their money. Smoking became fashionable for the many who had never tried it before. I took up pipe smoking thinking it might be as pleasant as its often attractive aroma. It was disgusting in my view however, and both the tobacco and the pipe (which oddly I had been able to buy on board) were ditched in the Firth.
Soon the rumblings of possible mutiny were circulating. We heard that this had happened on one of the other ships of the convoy, but we could not have the rumour verified. We thought it might be true though, when on our seventh day aboard, the friendly lighter pulled up alongside and the tannoy announced that we were going to take a little walk. Off-loaded at Gourock and lined up three-thick, we went on our way to the Cloch lighthouse, about two miles to the south. It was all quite pleasant. The countryside around the Firth was at its best and we appreciated the break from the monotony of our prison ship. Until the order came to don our gas masks, to simulate a gas attack, that is. If we had been able to identify the nut who had dreamed up this diversion, there is little doubt that he would be resting at the bottom of the Firth to this day, tied to one of the heavy boulders lining the shore. To the uninitiated, simply wearing a gas mask is none too pleasant; marching a mile or two wearing one is not very far removed from torture.
We fumed and fretted for another week when, on the afternoon of the fourteenth day, the crew were seen and heard scampering about. Smoke started to belch from the funnels of some of the ships as the boiler fires were lit. We each got out our sweepstake ticket, to check the date/time stated on it, and weighed up the possibility of winning the jackpot, ie the ticket date/time nearest to the actual date and time of our ship breasting the submarine boom stretched across the Firth from the Cloch lighthouse to Dunoon on the opposite shore. The ships juggled for position in line-astern as they poked their way out of the net and headed south for the open sea. Darkness fell as we turned right, towards the west, and the Mull of Kintyre dropped away behind us. I felt a pang as I left my homeland, not to see its beautiful hills and mountains for months to come and possibly never again.
We were elated, of course, at being on our way at long last. That joystick was getting closer and closer, so we slept well. When we awoke next morning there was a deathly silence. No engine noise, no activity, no nothing; not even weather when we climbed up to the promenade deck to check. The ship was not moving, the water was glassy, the fog was thick. ''Probably putting in to Belfast to pick up more troops'' quoth the usual know-it-all. After breakfast, the propellors began to turn and we set off in a direction known only to the man on the bridge with the compass. When the fog cleared we realised we were on course for the Dunoon boom and a full stop opposite Gourock, with one engine out of two, failed. They off-loaded us immediately and put us on a train to a transit camp at West Kirby near Liverpool; it was probably thought we would burn Wilmslow down if they had sent us back there, and they might have been right. Off we went to our dear ones again for a few days of blissful leave before returning to the transit camp. On 11 September 1941 we entrained back to the Clyde and boarded the more classy liner, the SS Stratheden. Two days later we fell in behind a convoy heading out through the boom, with fingers crossed for better luck this time.
All the time on both ships, of course, was the nagging fear of U-boat attack once we were at sea but, on this convoy, when the ships had deployed to their briefed stations, we saw that the convoy's central position was occupied by HMS Prince of Wales and that a deal more destroyers were present than on our previous convoy; so we felt a little safer. The great battleship was, however, sailing to her doom off Malaya just three months later. The weather roughened up somewhat in the first few days, causing a lot of sea-sickness amongst us which made life unpleasant when holed up below. The slowness of the convoy seemed to lead to the faster ships rolling more than one expected; the listing to left then right of the Prince of Wales, when she zig-zagged and presented herself broadside to the huge waves, was spectacular due to the great height of her superstructure. When we had tracked about one third of the distance across the Atlantic, we accelerated away from the convoy during the night and, now at full speed, soon sighted the shores of Nova Scotia.
We docked at Halifax and were transferred within a few hours to a special train which was to take us to Toronto's No 1 Manning Pool, a transit camp which had been the rink of one of Canada's top ice-hockey teams. We were getting really close to aeroplanes now.
5 - Home of the Brave and Land of the Plenty
At Toronto, we were divided up into parcels of a size which equated to the number of available beds for the cadets at the aeronautical schools in the south-east sector of the USA, ie in Florida, Georgia and Alabama. The whole affair was known as the Arnold Scheme, named after USAAC General H H ('Hap') Arnold, a far-sighted officer who devised the plan, allowing the use of American flying schools and facilities for the training of British cadet pilots, to assist the UK effort against the Axis powers. Other schools were started in the USA for the training of British cadets only, termed British Flying Training Schools (BFTS); these were complementary to the Empire Air Training Scheme operating in Canada and Rhodesia. The schools of the Arnold Scheme were differently set up. The contract called for Britain to accept that its cadets would be subject to decisions (and possibly laws) made by the US Army, although an RAF liaison officer would provide advice in any confrontation; this is my understanding of the policy as seen, although I cannot be certain of its details. It must be remembered that the USA was not at war at the time, and this dictated the policy, especially as some of the schools would be training US cadets alongside those of Britain.
I was one of a batch of 100 cadets exactly, despatched on a train on 1 October 1941 with a destination of the School of Aeronautics at Lakeland, Florida, about 30 miles east of Tampa. We arrived next day and were each alloted a bed in a long two-storey wood-clad building which housed 50 beds on each floor. This building formed one side of a square with a similarly-sized building directly opposite. The square was grass-covered with pathways along and across. The building opposite housed, on its ground floor, offices for the few Army Air Corps supervisors, and for administrative and medical personnel, with the remaining space taken up with beds for ten cadets. The upper floor was totally occupied by 50 cadets. The curriculum was to cover ten weeks at this school. Under the US-style training, the new intake into the school was known as the 'lower classmen' for its first five weeks, after which it became the 'upper classmen' when a new intake arrived and the old upper class had departed for its next stage of training. Simple arithmetic made it obvious that, of the 100 cadets who arrived on 1 October, only 60 or fewer would remain on 4 November. And so, the fearful prospect which spoiled the fun was that 40% or more of us were going to catch a train back to Canada to become bomb-aimers or air-gunners or fitters or just 'erks'. Very few of these 'washouts' as they were termed, managed to persuade the RAF postings people at Toronto that they had been failed simply because of the limited space available at the US school and not on their ability as pilots; those who succeeded were absorbed into the Empire scheme for further pilot training. But when it was rumoured that the US authorities objected to the pilot re-treading of any cadet whom they had failed on the Arnold course, transfer to the Empire scheme was stopped, and all Arnold failures had to be re-mustered.
The flying instruction at this Primary school was provided entirely by civilian pilots (most of them being very experienced flyers) except for two or three US Army Air Corps check pilots who monitored progress at around the 10, 40 and finally 60 flying hour points; the check pilots made the decision to 'washout' those who did not satisfy their requirements.
The total course in the South East Army Air Corps Training Centre (SEAATC) comprised three stages, viz Primary, Basic and Advanced, each stage covering ten weeks at different locations. The aircraft used were the Stearman PT-17 at Primary, the Vultee BT-13 at Basic and the North American AT6-A at Advanced. The PT-17 was a biplane with a Continental 220hp power unit; at Basic the BT-13 was a monoplane with a fixed undercarriage and powered by a Pratt & Whitney 450hp engine. The AT6-A used at Advanced was a monoplane better known to the British as the North American Harvard, using a Pratt & Whitney 550hp engine. The Basic and Advanced schools were run entirely by US Army Air Corps personnel for flying and ground military training; some civilian groundschool instructors were used for meteorology and the description and workings of the engines in use.
The easy-going flying-club atmosphere of the Primary school was replaced by the US type of military discipline at the Basic (and Advanced) schools, as demonstrated in films of the US Army's West Point, the US Navy's Minneapolis or the later USAF Colorado Springs. To the British cadets many of the US military traditions seemed childish and, considering that Britain was at war, unacceptable. Their 'hazing' and 'honour' systems were such as to disgust most British personnel; the former was seen by us as persecution and the latter as a complete abnegation of honour (eg telling teacher that a colleague had done something wrong). On the other hand, I have always had a high regard for American flying training standards and never ever regretted being taught that part of the syllabus by the US system.
* * * * *
The form filling, medical inspection and ID photographs were soon completed. We were given details of the course and told that we were not allowed to leave the school confines until 'open post' was declared, normally occurring on Saturdays and Sundays. Our RAF uniform was not to be worn outside the camp (the one exception being to allow us to parade through Lakeland on 11 November, Armistice Remembrance Sunday). Hence the issue of the grey suits, which were binned on the first opportunity we had to buy clothing which fitted properly. The weather was incredibly balmy, it being the optimum holiday season in that part of the States. Spirits lifted as we gorged ourselves on huge steaks, quarts of milk, any amount of bacon and eggs, and fruit galore, far removed from the rations and blacked-out gloom of the UK at war, which we had just left; because of this, perhaps a touch of the guilt crept in. Around the camp and in the air, we clothed ourselves in jock-strap or swim-suit under the US-issued lightweight coverall in the sub-tropical heat of the day, changing into RAF summer-dress uniform in the evening, ie blue shirt with uniform slacks, supported by an RAF tunic belt - and some of us wore US brown/cream two-tone shoes with this rig, rather than the regulation black ones.
At last we marched down to the flightline operations hangar. Lined up on the tarmac in line-abreast were the bright-blue fuselage, yellow-wing PT-17s, attractive-looking biplanes. We were allocated in flights of five pupils to one instructor for the course. Mine was a medium-sized, tough looking stocky chap, like a balding Al Capone somewhat, carrying a standard southern accent, a Mr Sandifer. He liked his fat cigar and, I suspect, his Budweiser.
On my first flight, belted up in the rear cockpit, I knew at once that I was in a medium that I was always going to enjoy. From my voracious reading of aviation books at home, I did not need to be told what effect an aileron, elevator or rudder had in controlling an aeroplane and I very quickly managed to get about in the air. Take-off held few terrors, but landing safely looked as if it would require some work. But the real anxiety at this time was how to avoid being washed out and sent back to Canada, a failure which your family and friends at home would soon know about and which you would have to live with for the rest of your days. The fear was at its height in the early phase, but it was to last to the very end of the 30-week course, as demonstrated by the washout of one of our flight when he was within ten hours flying time and one week of graduation.
Sandifer was a bit of a hard taskmaster. You could tell that he was confident of his ability to fly well and that he wanted to produce pupils who knew as much about flying as he did. This was demonstrated alarmingly by the time I had amassed 20 flying hours, when I found myself his sole pupil, the other four being back in Canada. I do not claim that I met Sandifer's high standards absolutely; it may well have been that he thought it would be prudent to retain one 'Limey' cadet to ensure his job security. However, he did refer to me as his star pupil and I suppose I was big-headed enough to believe him. By the time I was approaching 10 flying hours I was getting a bit apprehensive about not having gone solo. Some pupils had already done so, therefore the fear of washout built. Training was mainly confined to landings at one or other of the satellite fields at this point, and to simulated forced landings, the instructor having suddenly slammed the throttle shut to the idle stop and watched you struggle to get into a suitable field, pointing into wind, then opening the throttle when he estimated you might make it or kill yourself, if you were on your own. I breathed a sigh of relief when, 17 days after my first flight and after a 47-minute spell of unremitting take-offs and landings, Sandifer braked to a halt at the marshalling point, climbed out of the front cockpit with the engine still idling and bawled in my ear "It's all yours mister. Take off, fly around within sight of the field for twenty minutes, then come back and land." It was heaven to me as I handled the Stearman and did what I liked with it without the bulk of my instructor obstructing my vision ahead or bitching at me. From this time, I knew that I would always perform better on my own without being watched by any pilot whom I thought was my equal or superior; I suspect it is a feeling felt by many pilots.
Strict accuracy was demanded on some manœuvres, for example on spinning, forced-landing practise and on pattern flying and normal landings. Spinning was initially a violent and disorientating manœuvre but gradually its components became understood, especially when proficiency was reached, to react accurately to a request from your instructor to "Do a two-and-a-half turn spin mister". You had to check that there was no other aircraft below (heaven help you if you did not) then line up flying straight down the track of a road, pull up to the stall, before kicking the rudder into the spin; you counted the times the road came into view and at the completion of the second turn recovered by kicking full opposite rudder and stick fully forward and out you came facing in the opposite direction, fully unstalled. You had to make sure you could do it ten times out of ten, as you could not afford to make a mistake when your check by the US Army instructor took place.
The landing exercises were held in a sort of show-jumping fashion with faults given for lack of success at the fences. There were four special events, called stages, comprising six landings per stage whereby a series of strict approach patterns had to be flown, the throttle cut to idling at a particular point on each pattern, and a landing made so as to touch down straddling a target line drawn across the field at right angles to the final approach (refer to Figure 1). The throttle was not allowed to be opened again and any trickling-on of power meant a nasty number of faults for that approach. The event was flown solo, but a panel of instructors on the ground had very sensitive ears. The target line had two lines parallel to it, one about 30 yards beyond and the other the same distance short. If you overshot into the area beyond the target line, you had to undershoot on the next landing (to demonstrate that you had corrected your approach) and so on. Straddling the target line allowed you to overshoot or undershoot it on the next touchdown, as you wished. I cannot recall the exact points system, if I ever knew it, but was made aware that a well-flown pattern, and a 'greaser' three-point touchdown were to your benefit - provided that all the touchdowns were inside the overshoot/undershoot limit lines.
As time progressed, I was becoming more confident, perhaps too confident, and an event occurred which could have ruined my aviation career. Lakeland airfield was not generally used for circuit-and-landing training but rather for take-offs and landings in transit to and from the satellite fields. It had one runway and a part perimeter track, and though intended for Primary school training activity, was also used by a few private flyers and every other day by a Lockheed airliner which dropped airmail and the occasional passenger whilst on its way between Jacksonville to the north and Miami to the south. We carried no radio in our PT-17s, so were briefed that the airliner would be on a straight-in approach to land whenever a yellow cone was hoisted on a pole at the marshalling point of the runway, and that the airliner had priority. I taxyed out for a solo aerobatic sortie, full of the joys, lined up on the runway and rolled. There was not a cloud in the sky, a really superb day. I got to about 200ft on the climb and had just started turning left when the sun disappeared and a great shadow passed overhead. I looked up for the cloud and choked when I saw the Lockheed directly above, thundering past on an overshoot. I carried on with my sortie but had no heart for it and eventually screwed up the courage to return and land. With my tail between my legs, I dragged self and parachute to the crewroom. Sandifer approached red-faced. "Better go and see the Ops Manager" said he. The Operations Manager, a civilian pilot greatly respected for his experience and gentlemanly demeanour, looked at me, saw the abject depression on my face and gave me a suitable blast. I waited for the sentence, having pleaded guilty. It was a 'boot-outable' case as far as I could see, and I wondered which train I would be catching for Toronto. Then he said "Go and fetch your parachute, son". Was he going to take me up and drop me overboard? When I returned he said "Walk with your parachute out to the 'Tee'" (a runway direction pointer on the ground at the centre of the airfield). "Then stay there and think until I call you in." I was there for about two hours sweltering in the afternoon heat, until a jeep eventually turned up and the driver said I was to walk back. As I trudged past the Ops Manager's office on my way to the crewroom, I think I detected a hint of a smile on his face when I looked in through his window. I'll bet he didn't report my misdemeanour to the US military gents or I would have been a 'gonner'.
Figure 1 - Circuit & Landing Stages and Target Lines
It was with some relief to us that our final day approached, but just prior to it, by one week and one day, Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese, and the USA was at war with the Axis powers. War or no war, however, the training régime continued with no detectable change. I was sad to leave Lakeland. Its citizens went out of their way to make us welcome and we greatly appreciated their hospitality - a friend of mine who was there visits a family at Lakeland to this day.
Before recounting my tales of training at Basic school, I will tell of an event which came to our notice at Lakeland, the result of which may be interesting. Each intake of the Arnold Scheme was given a Class code, my intake being the Class of 42D, indicating that it would be the fourth class to graduate to Wings standard in 1942. When we arrived at Lakeland, a school magazine had been produced by the pupils with a page devoted to the obituary of a cadet from a previous Class who had completely disappeared on a solo flight and had been posted missing presumed dead. Neither his aircraft nor any wreckage was found on land, and it was considered that he must have come down in the sea; the Gulf of Mexico is only about 30 miles to the west of Lakeland. It seemed like a Bermuda Triangle situation as we now know it. But why was he over the sea? The answer to that could only have been due to the prevailing weather conditions, the lack of adequate instrumentation in the rear cockpit, the absence of any radio communication equipment and the lack of instrument flying instruction up to that time.
Assume that a cloud layer of up to eight or nine tenths cover existed. The rear cockpit of the PT-17 had no airspeed indicator fitted (to ensure that the pupil learned to fly by feel of the controls, wind in the wires, position of struts aligned with the horizon, and engine RPM) and there was no artificial horizon. Penetration of cloud of any significance was, therefore, deliberate suicide and was forbidden. My view is that this student poked his nose up through a hole in the cloud and buzzed around the cloud tops, simulating low flying perhaps, but then couldn't find a hole through which to descend. In other words he was trapped above cloud and could do nothing about it but fly aimlessly seeking a partial cloud clearance, or bale out. This would account for the general surmise that he ended up over the sea, ran out of fuel and ditched, or baled out.
The story seemed to have ended when some months later we of Class 42D were in our final phase of the complete course, a magazine produced by our Arnold Scheme HQ told that some small amount of PT-17 wreckage, plus the numbered undercarriage, had been washed ashore on the Gulf coast; everyone's surmise seemed to have been confirmed. Until I met one of my Lakeland colleagues in London after the war and over a drink he asked if I remembered the mystery surrounding that student's accident. I said I did, and he then said "Well, I have heard that the pilot concerned walked out of a German prisoner-of-war camp when it was overrun by the Allies in 1945". It was known that in 1942 U-boats had been allowed to refuel somewhere on the Gulf coast by German sympathisers, to permit them to attack Allied convoys sailing along the US eastern seaboard. This student might therefore have found the hole in the cloud he sought, but over the sea, descended and spotted a submarine which then shot him down, or he ditched or baled out alongside, and was taken prisoner - the submarine being a U-boat. Germany could not report the missing pilot as a prisoner-of-war, otherwise it would have confirmed the illicit refuelling and put the German sympathisers at risk at that time. I would have liked to have had these events verified; I am sure I am seldom believed when I relate what I know of the story.
* * * * *
On 16 December 1941, with the USA now at war, we left Lakeland by train and were pitched into the rigorous vicissitudes of US military life at Cochran Field, Macon, Georgia, some 300 miles to the north. We sensed a considerable change from the country-club atmosphere of Lakeland as soon as we stepped from the Army buses which had brought us from Macon railway station. We could see the hangars and the airfield at the southern end of the large parade-ground square from our disembarkation point at the northern end, which was bordered and dominated by the administration block - where resided a tyrant whose name became synonymous with all we detested of the disciplinary methods of the US style of military training, and of West Point in particular, since that was where Lieutenant Knight (the aforementioned tyrant) sprang from. Behind the administration block were a number of barrack-blocks, wooden-clad, two-storeyed structures reminiscent of the forts of Custer's 7th
Cavalry in Indian-country. We were allotted to these, where we would suffer until Advanced training afforded us a reprieve. Posted on a notice-board therein was a timetable of what was known euphemistically as 'processing', which would commence on the following day. Processing was a régime designed to break you mentally and physically; it occupied the whole of one half of each day, the other half fortunately being reserved for flying. The processing timetable was made up of periods of drill (US Army style) of 25 minutes, dressed in different varieties of uniform and flying clothing. There was no rest during each 25-minute period, at the end of which a bell would sound, whereupon you were required to run to your barrack-block, change into the next variety of uniform and run back to your alloted place in your squad before the sounding of the next bell some seven minutes later, and so on. If you were unlucky enough to arrive a millisecond (even a nanosecond) late, you collected a number of 'demerits', each representing one hour of marching up and down the stoop of a punishment area, usually with a full pack on your back.
Even the half-day given to flying training was marred by the needless adherance to the Army 'bull'. For example, at this time of year the sub-tropical heat of the day was tempered by the freezing mornings when we paraded for the march from the Admin block to the flightline, so we all turned up in our RAF flying suits (Sidcots) designed for the icy conditions when flying over Europe in non-heated RAF aircraft; light US-issue coveralls were worn when the sun got up. When flying finished at lunchtime, we marched back carrying our Sidcots, which were too hot to wear with the temperature then in the eighties. But Knight espied us from his lair in the Admin block and issued an order to us not to wear the Sidcots in future. When we complained bitterly to our RAF liaison officer, he managed to get the order rescinded but Knight demanded that if we wore the Sidcots to march down in the morning, we would be required to wear them on the march back also.
We were fortunate, however, in escaping the worst effects of the traditional 'hazing' during our service under the US Army. The Oxford English Dictionary's definition of the word quotes 'bullying' and 'persecution'; it is therefore incredible that the US military not only allow it in their cadet training schools, but advocate it. Our grapevine had it that the RAF cadets of Class 42A, being the first of the British intakes into the system, had an upper class of US cadets to contend with throughout. Class 42A contained some ex-Army personnel who had experienced the German blitz on the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force to Dunkirk in 1940 and who had subsequently remustered to the RAF. They had arrived at the school tired from their long train journey from Toronto and were relaxing on their beds in the lower classmen block. Shortly, a few US cadets (newly upper classmen) arrived and attempted to 'haze' the ex-Dunkirk veterans by ordering them to "Take a brace, mister" - at which the victim was supposed to adopt a ridiculously exaggerated position of attention. The perpetrators, needless to say, quickly found themselves fully clothed under a cold shower in the ablution area! Other forms of this childish bullying were attempted While eating in the mess hall, for example, an order might be put to a lower classman to "Eat a square meal", requiring the victim to spoon his food into his mouth by means of vertical and horizontal movements only, whilst sitting in an exaggerated position of attention. No British cadet, as far as I know, ever dared to visit this sort of humiliating treatment on any British lower classmen, so it rapidly disappeared from the training menu wherever British cadets served.
The aircraft used for Basic training, the Vultee BT-13, was an over-stable monoplane which might be thought too easy and simple for a training aircraft. It was safe enough though, and a confidence-builder in terms of instrument flying, formation flying and night flying; it did not seem to be capable of any death-threatening tantrums, and certainly none occurred at Macon in my time. It had one primary instrument which many pilots would say was indispensable, but this was the first time we had used it - we had managed without it for 60 flying hours on the Stearman PT-17 - the airspeed indicator (ASI). We would never again fly an aircraft without one, except on the occasional semi-emergency when it became unserviceable, of which I can boast four incidents. Perhaps our Primary training stood us in good stead in teaching us to be instinctively aware of the feel of an aircraft, rather than having too slavish an acceptance of control via the flight instruments alone. (The early de Havilland Vampire Mk 1 was a case in point. It could readily be g-stalled, or made to break away in a pull-away turn. A modification to compensate for this was introduced whereby weights were inserted in the elevator control run to increase the stick force per g.)
Perhaps the most dodgy situation during Basic training was, believe it or not, approach and landing whenever the grassed area of the field was unsuitable for taxying, take-off or landing following heavy rain, when the going became too soft. In this case the broad runway was used exclusively, but it joined the large parking apron by one lead-in strip only; there was no perimeter track. At one side of the runway, lengthwise, was a black-painted strip about the width of one-and-a-half BT-13 wingspans. The black strip was used solely for taxying out to the end of the runway for take-off or by those taxying back to the apron after landing, depending on the runway direction in use, as broadcast on the radio by the air traffic controller in the tower. The snag with this arrangement was that the duration of each training sortie was restricted to one hour, with four periods per morning and four per afternoon, with a short break between each period. To keep strictly to time therefore, the 'off' became a mad scramble to reach the runway lead-in strip as close to the front of the pack as possible; we are talking about 40 to 50 aeroplanes in the pack. The 'off' was announced by the control tower broadcasting "This is a take-off period", which lasted for five minutes and was then followed by a landing period of five minutes, and so on. You can guess what is coming; 40 or 50 aircraft were going to be hovering over the defined entry point on the downwind leg exactly 55 minutes after the take-off mêlée already described, trying to position themselves on their starting blocks when the gun went off to announce "This is a landing period". If you survived the hurdle of getting on to the downwind leg, you were likely to be edged out during the turn to the crosswind leg (a square traffic pattern was used) by aircraft which carried instructors, who showed their muscle by cutting inside solo pupils, thus gaining a place ahead in the queue for finals and an earlier cup of coffee with a longer break between sorties. It was normal to have up to half-a-dozen aircraft on finals, controlled only by an instructor parked in an aircraft by the runway threshold, with hand-held mike and binoculars, calling which number (as displayed on the aircraft) may land and which had to overshoot and go round again, the ratio being one to land per four to overshoot in most cases. This is not an exaggeration. It should be noted that Macon airfield had, in fact, two runways, crossing each other at about the centre of the field - but the effect was that whichever runway was in use, the description above applied as though there was only a single runway, taxying not being allowed on the out-of-use runway. A perimeter track would have made operations much easier.
An extra fear crept in to the flying training as the halfway mark approached - our first stab at night flying. We did not know what to expect. I do not believe that many pilots can truthfully claim that they like night flying; it is not for nothing that the well-known aviators' maxim states 'Only birds and fools fly, and birds don't fly at night!'. (The word 'fools' is often substituted by another, and of course we now know that a lot of birds do fly at night.) We had all been well-instructed in instrument flying before being let loose in an aircraft at night, so we felt confident enough about maintaining control at night once airborne. It was the apprehen- sion when landing at night which was the hairy bit. You must have wings level and flare at the correct height above the runway threshold to make a decent landing at any time; in daylight you can see if you meet these conditions. If the flight conditons are such that you cannot be absolutely certain of them, eg no horizon, or no certainty of your height over the threshold when you flare (on a very dark night with little illumination to guide you) some guesswork is needed. If your guess makes you flare too high above the runway, you drop like a stone at the aircraft stall point at an increasing vertical velocity - which the undercarriage oleos do not like. Flaring too low, on the other hand, simply means flying straight into the ground at the particular rate of descent you have adopted, which also displeases the afore-mentioned oleos. But thanks be, the difference in night flying at Macon in the well-lit USofA as opposed to that in say the UK at war, was similar to a Liverpool v Arsenal evening soccer match under full floodlighting, to such a match after the complete electrical failure of the lighting, including that of the stands and terracing. Our first night sorties therefore, were flown in the comfort of a completely floodlit runway with the added bonus of aircraft landing lights. It was, as they say, a dawdle. As we gained experience, the airfield floodlighting was extinguished, leaving the aircraft landing lights as our only aid to illumination when landing. But at the back of my mind the thought of night flying in the UK, clothed in its virtual total darkness under the blackout, made me hope and strive for a day-fighter posting when training ended!
To complete the flying curriculum at Basic, I have said something already to the effect that instrument flying a BT-13 was no problem. The aircraft was as steady as you could wish and it was easy enough to maintain the desired manœuvre when under the hood - a device which was used to blot out the external view through the canopy during practise instrument flying There was no indication of aircraft attitude (such as that given by an an artificial horizon) however, and attitude had to be obtained from a turn-and-slip indicator used with cross-reference to the airspeed indicator, the altimeter, and a rate-of-climb/descent indicator. This led to a chant sung by all the instructors incessantly as you battled with the instrument indications, of "Needle, ball and airspeed; needle, ball and airspeed" until you got sick of the sound of it. (Needle and ball was the US term for the RAF's 'turn-and-slip' instrument.) This ditty will be written for ever on the minds of all those British cadets who suffered it.
As for formation flying, I have always regarded this as one of my strong points (and my later experience will support this, I feel). The BT-13 could be held as steady as a rock on the lead aircraft in any manœuvre conducted at Basic training. At this stage, of course, we were restricted to gentle flying in the mode; there was no line-astern or formation on an aircraft which was already formating on another. In fact, only two aircraft comprised any close formation element at Basic.
And so our time at Basic Training School ended in the enjoyment of the half of it which dealt with flying aeroplanes. As to the other half, the military ground training, I will leave it to you to judge whether or not it was good for us. Perhaps Lt Knight was right to see how much of the 'bull' we could take. But was there not something odd about his sneaking around the barrack-blocks in our absence, inspecting our beds to determine, by use of a protractor, if our bedding was made up with blanket corners at 45 degrees, plus or minus a minute limit, and that the blankets were pulled taut enough over the bed to make a nickel coin (five cents) bounce off the top blanket by a particular distance when dropped from a point exactly horizontal to his nose while he stood at attention? That was why I was not sorry to see the back of the place.
Finally, we waited anxiously to hear which of the two Advanced Training Schools would be our next and last destination under General Arnold. It was understood but not written anywhere as far as I was aware, that those cadets who had shown a flair for formation flying, aerobatics, and displayed personal characteristics appropriate to a fighter pilot, would go to Craig Field, Selma in Alabama to complete their training, whilst those with a bent for steadiness and solidity would be sent for bomber-type training at Dothan, also in Alabama. I was overjoyed to learn that I was to go to Selma.
* * * * *
I moved to Selma in late February 1942. It lies approximately 50 miles to the west of the State capital of Alabama - Montgomery. The accent on training at Selma now shifted to flying, which pleased most of us, although I detected apprehension on the faces of some cadets when we heard that fatal accidents had occurred a month or two before our arrival.
The flying training took on an operational aspect with most sorties having procedural or tactical lessons to learn. Instrument flying was more exacting and required high accuracy at set flight patterns. Formation flying was now done in what US pilots termed three-ship and two-ship formation (refer to Figure 2 and 3).
Figure 2 - Two Ship Formation
Three-ship consisted of Vic (V) or echelon port or starboard by three aircraft, but I cannot recall that we flew a three-ship line astern, and with hindsight it was probably because the instructor, who always flew in the lead aircraft of the formation, would not be able to observe the inexperienced No 2 and No 3, a dangerous situation for him, to which I can testify from my own later experience as an instructor at a fighter Operational Conversion Unit. The 'two-ship' formation (in USAAC parlance) was a tactical one of four aircraft comprising two sections of two aircraft per section. It was virtually identical to the RAF's low-level battle formation as flown in the early jet age 1950s and 1960s. In the two-ship, the No 2 of each section flew a stepped-back echelon on his leader at about 50yd spacing; the No 2 section-leader stepped back on the opposite side to the lead section's No 2 at about 100yd, with his own No 2 stepped back on the opposite side to the No 2 of the lead section. It is a very flexible formation allowing hard turns to be made in manœuvring, and was probably a precursor of the USAAC's 'finger-four' formation used in wartime operations.
Cross-country flying was done in loose Vic formation of three or four aircraft and over longer distances than hitherto. Night flying, however, was the régime to cause nervous flutters. On the syllabus was night formation flying which we cadets considered to be impossible; you cannot formate on an aeroplane you cannot see, we thought! But it was possible, as we found, with sufficient illumination of the aircraft formated on coming from its navigation lights and the engine exhaust glow on the silvery bare aluminium skin of the AT-6A, and from the general illumination from a normally cloudless sky and the brilliantly lit- up towns and highways of Alabama. It remained in the mind however, could it be done in the UK at war on a dirty moonless night? A touch of this came on one of the three night- formation cross-country sorties we had to fly to complete our night programme. The route was from Selma to Montgomery, an easterly track for 50 nautical miles (nm), then a turn to port on to roughly north for 90nm to Birmingham, then returning whence we came.
Figure 3 - Vic, Echelon and Line-Astern Formations
Cruising altitude was to be about 10,000ft. There were no navigation aids (other than pilot/contact navigation) on the Selma-Montgomery legs. On the Montgomery-Birmingham legs a series of six visual beacons were spaced at intervals of about 15nm along the track (for civil aviation use mainly) each of which flashed a letter of the Morse code, so that all that was required was to have a handy piece of paper with the letters of the beacon code series written out in the correct order, and to overfly each beacon, from which could be seen the next one. Thus the whole cross-country was a piece of cake navigationally, provided that the visibility was good enough.
The outbound part of the flight to Birmingham and the return to Montgomery passed uneventfully. We turned to starboard to the west over a well-lit Montgomery and settled on our heading for Selma. I checked our position on track to ensure that the instructor knew what he was about navigationally, a practice I was to adopt throughout my flying career. In this case the highway from Selma and the River Alabama were the only notable and detectable ground features, all else being lost in darkness. I was on the port side of the formation (the No 3 in Vic). Suddenly we entered what seemed a large patch of cumulus cloud. There was no radio call heard by me from the instructor to close up the formation prior to entering the cloud nor any sign of a heading change by him to avoid it. He just ploughed straight on. I had no time to close up on the leader and now could not see the other two aircraft; so I had to turn away to port to avoid a possible collision and I quickly found myself alone within the cloud. Additionally, my radio had completely failed at or just before the event so I was now in a threatened position if I could not find the airfield at Selma before my fuel ran out. Fortunately, I had timed my deviation from the original heading and now turned back, presumably behind the other two aircraft, to regain track for Selma, then commenced a descent to try to pinpoint myself once I had come below the cloudbase. (I had discarded the idea of a return to Montgomery because of the complexity of barging in to its well-used civilian airfield, with no radio to request a priority landing.) Luckily, when I was down to about five miles from Selma, the rain let up, visibility improved and I spotted the airfield at the two o'clock position or so.
I then had the problem of getting landing clearance from the tower. I could not assume that they were aware of my circumstances and I dared not enter the traffic pattern for fear of collision with other aircraft already in the circuit, even though I could not see any. So I dived directly at the control tower and used my landing lights to Morse-code the message 'no R/T', then pulled up when about 500ft above the recognised pattern height. This I did three times to ensure they had got the message, then I joined the pattern and landed, although I saw no responding green light from the tower (runway controllers were not generally on duty, as far as I was aware, except under the hair-raising runway approaches at Macon, already described). Oddly, I was not de-briefed by anyone or required to file a report after landing and the whole matter was apparently put down to a radio failure. I do not know to this day whether or not the formation leader was aware that he had led his flock into an accident- threatening situation, or if he had made any R/T call to close up the formation or to order a heading change to remain clear of the cloud, or even to advise Selma tower that I was adrift with an unserviceable radio. My opinion of him was such that, from then on, I felt a preference to lead any formation of which I was part when flying from A to B, and to trust few others to do it as I would wish.
Our training at Advanced School was now within three weeks of ending and for this final period we would be based at the then USAAC test-flight centre at Eglin Field in Florida, near Pensacola, where we would do nothing but fire the single machine gun mounted above the instrument panel in the AT-6A's cockpit and discharging 0.50-inch calibre shells through the propellor arc at a flag towed by another aircraft for air-to-air deflection shooting, and at a surface target for air-to-ground firing. A brilliantly enjoyable ending to the whole course.
But I must end the story of this phase with another anecdote of the military ground training which may be as amusing to you as it was to me - except for its rather nasty ending. At both Macon and Selma, the end of the day's work was always signified by a massive parade of all the cadets on the base, to 'beat the retreat'. The Americans love to march in large square blocks of men (some 7 x 7, or was it 8 x 8 in our case?). Four such blocks marched off from the Administration Building at Selma one evening, to the parade square to face up to the flag 'Old Glory'. The culmination of the parade was the lowering of 'Old Glory' to the tune 'Taps', played by the base's large brass band, and since 'Old Glory' is held in such high esteem in the USA, two men are required to handle the lowering to ensure that no part of the flag touches the ground. Also, the ceremony must be conducted in such a way that the flag begins its descent exactly on the first note of 'Taps' and the rate of lowering is so judged by the rope- handler that the flag is in the hands of the catcher exactly upon the final note. No problem there, you may say. But Murphy's law applied on this occasion - the flag got stuck half-way down No amount of tugging and twisting by the two British cadets involved could free it apparently, as the tune slowly but surely approached the final coda. Suddenly, with about two bars of music remaining, the flag repented and hurtled at speed through the arms of the horrified catcher and landed in a heap on the ground. Although the men were from our own number, a muffled gasp of amusement could just be heard from our end of the parade. I regret that as a result of this breach of the US conduct rules, both the rope handler and the flag catcher were on their way back to Toronto a day or so later.
On 24 April 1942 we marched up to the airfield church and were presented with our Graduation Diploma signed by General Stratemeyer, and had our US Army Air Corps wings pinned on to our RAF tunics to signify our coming-of-age in aviation. Next day we wandered one after another, into the office of the RAF Liaison Officer who handed out our RAF wings - the prize we all had awaited for nearly a year. We wore both sets of wings on the way back to Canada on 27 April 1942. Of the 644 Aviation Cadets who had set out on 1 October 1941, only 342 returned so adorned.
We were held in a Canadian transit camp at Moncton, New Brunswick, until a suitable ship became available to join a convoy and brave the U-boat infested North Atlantic. The ship was the twin of the 'Duchess' class vessel which had failed us on the Clyde on that September day in 1941. This time its sister did not, and regular Catalina and then Spitfire convoy patrols assured us of a welcome to Blighty to spite the Hun. After a short spell of leave, we gathered together again at a reception centre in the Bath Hill Court Hotel in Bournemouth, where we were held for a month to hear of our next posting.
6 - A Short Stay in the UK
The Sergeant Pilot output of the Arnold Scheme's Class 42D descended on Bournemouth on 13 June 1942 and for a month provided diversionary comedy for its citizens. We were waiting for places at Advanced Flying Units to prepare us for the final stage of our training at an Operational Training Unit (OTU) where we would convert to the aircraft on which we would begin our operational flying.
The problem for the authorities was how the devil could they control such a boist- erous lot of grown-up schoolboys bent on having a great time of it in this holiday resort? The short answer was 'with difficulty'; they had at their disposal a mere two or three Sergeant PTIs and half-a-dozen or so Corporal PTIs to control about 100 Sergeant Pilots per converted and sequestrated hotel, and to keep us occupied in some sort of activity until we got our postings. Initially, the main Bournemouth swimming pool was used to get us out of the way for a few hours each day; then it was decided that a route march to the swimming pool at Poole would prolong our absence and provide the staff with an extended period of relief. This of course meant a much longer march through the town rather than the quarter-mile stroll down the hill to the Bournemouth pool; and so the merriment began.
As any military man would tell you, it cannot be expected that things will run smoothly if you put a Corporal in charge of 100-odd Sergeants. All of the Bath Hill Court group were required to parade in alphabetical order each morning on the narrow side-road of the hotel, where details of postings and other orders were read out by the officer in charge of the unit. He did this from a position at the side-entrance to the hotel at the extreme left of the parade, assembled in a long line, three thick, with personnel whose surnames began with the letter A on the left, and the long column terminating with those whose surnames were at the other end of the alphabet. The side-road was straight from the A position to the P position, thereafter disappearing round a corner to a cemetary; the Q to Z people were completely hidden from the parade commander. The officer would then hand over to a Corporal to march the paraded pilots, with swim-suits and towels at the ready, to Poole. He would give the order "Parade, left - turn" to get the column aligned for the march on to the main road which ran past the hotel. Upon this order, those Q to Z personnel turned right, having 'misheard' the command, and when the "Quick - march" was given, proceeded straight into the cemetary, hid towels and swim-suits behind convenient tombstones, and strolled into Bournemouth for a second breakfast at a decent café.
Two other breakout methods were available, since the one described above could only be used by about a quarter of the escapees. The surreptitious hop on to a passing bus was generally well-liked and successful if the bus was travelling slowly, but it was not productive enough since a bus could not accommodate the required demand. The master stroke came once some experience had been gained. It was noted that the single Corporal invariably took up his position at the head of the column. Thus was born the 'Crossroads Ploy'. Crossing traffic was brought to a halt to allow the column to pass; when half of it had got across, the rear half scarpered right and left down each side of the crossing road. The Corporal at the front, having heard the scampering feet, turned and ran after the fleeing Sergeants, shouting at them to return. Unfortunately, this left the front half under no control so they shrugged their shoulders and rapidly disappeared ahead leaving the Corporal stranded on his own. Thus passed a pleasant holiday month.
* * * * *
On 14 July, a group of about fifteen of us arrived at No 7 Advanced Flying Unit at Peter- borough, Northants (now in Cambs) and were pitchforked into a single barrack hut. We were relieved to hear that we were to fly the Miles Master (all three Marks) which meant that we would graduate to a fighter-type aircraft at OTU about a month later. This mini-course was to convert us to RAF flying procedures, RAF cockpit layout and to refresh our flying generally following the lengthy lay-off since leaving the USA in April. The early part of the course was devoted to instrument flying, cross-countries, low flying and formation flying. We delighted in the freedom to beat up and down the canals and waterways of East Anglia at very low level. However, the menace of night flying was there to haunt us again, but this time we knew it would be a real menace and not the dawdle we had experienced in the USA. The possibilities for a disaster here have always remained with me, especially now when age awakens me in the night. Fifty-four years later, I paid a visit to an old aerobatic-team colleague, John Jennings, and we talked about some of the nasty moments we had had during our flying careers, and I found that he also had been through this same Advanced Flying Unit just after me and held similar views to mine on this part of the course; it was reassuring to know, after these many years, that my apparent phobia was not confined to me alone.
The place chosen for night-flying operations was a satellite field called Sibson, just to the west of Peterborough, which was indeed nothing but a squarish patch of grass with just enough room for a Miles Master to get in and out of, and could only be distinguished as having some connection with aviation by a windsock and a single Chance floodlight on the ground. At night, the field's total aid to the pilot was this Chance light parked at the start of the take-off run, and a line of half-a-dozen goose-neck lights running from there down the line of the field where it was advisable for the aircraft to go. A goose-neck is simply a can of paraffin with a spout (hence 'goose-neck') which produces a feeble light after its wick is ignited. There was no glidepath indication as far as I can recall, and aircraft navigation lights and landing lights were taboo as they would be an invitation to any lurking Ju-88 night-fighter pilot. The Chance light was the sole saviour because you knew that your touchdown had to occur within feet of it, and pointing along the line of goose-necks, and you also knew that you had to have flared to land at or as near as dammit to the height of the light. From the air, it was vital to have an eye on the Chance light all the time in the circuit, because God help you if you lost it - on the sort of nights of that week when I was there!
And so to the nitty-gritty. You collect your flying kit (helmet, parachute, flying suit), sign the book authorising you to fly this particular aircraft on this particular type of sortie, sign the Form 700 giving the technical history of your aircraft with the signatures of the mechanics and fitters who had serviced it and, as this is to be a night flight, walk into a darkened room where you remain for sufficiently long to get your eyes used to what you are about to see when you step outside again to go to your aircraft - or not to see, as your case may be. You climb into the cockpit and note with dismay that it is absolutely pitch black out here, not a glimpse of a moon or horizon to be seen and, to all intents, you are a 'white stick' job. You grope your way in and feel for your straps, hoping that some clumsy 'erk' has rogered the magneto switches so that you can't start. But Murphy's law applies and the groundcrew have, against your wishes, provided you with a machine that could not be more serviceable. "Switches off" says the Chiefy outside. "Switches off" say you, cringing in your seat.
"Contact" says Chiefy; "Contact" say you, hoping against hope. You thumb the two magneto switches to on, and pause before fingering the engine start button. You press the button and swear when the engine succeeds in firing first time. You check engine RPM, oil pressure, oil temperature, all normal. 'My God', you think, 'it never happens like this in daylight'. "Chocks away" you mumble to the Chiefy, and curse him for his acute hearing ability. You edge the throttle forward a bit and check your wheelbrakes operation as you move into the darkness towards the only light you can see, the Chance light at the edge of the field. You come to a halt there, slam open the throttle to check each of the two magnetos in turn, in the vain hope of a significant mag drop. But not a suspicion of a duff mag - it's not your day, or night even. Take-off vital actions: "Trim, mixture, propellor pitch, fuel, flaps, oxygen, instruments" you moan in the dark, then take courage and line up for your dice with death. You endeavour to see something ahead - anything; but it is as black as the ace of spades except for the few flickering sparklets (the goose-necks) making out they are runway lighting. From your Rolls- Royce Kestrel in-line engine's exhaust-piping aligned on each side of the nose, comes the glare of the exhaust flames, blinding your view. Unable to see anything ahead, you do your best to deduce the correct take-off path by looking sideways for the goose-necks to appear in the right places during the ground run. With the throttle fully open to take-off power you thunder down the pitted field ('Don't they ever cut the grass?' you say to yourself), take one final almighty bump and get thrown into the air. Now you are in the climb, the wheels have retracted and you still cannot see a thing. Then you remember - 'Turn quickly you dim idiot and get on the reciprocal heading and pick up the only illumination in the whole world on which you depend, the Chance light'.
You settle down a bit when the heart takes a rest from its hammering. 'I'll do a few turns round the circuit' you say 'and a dummy run-in for a landing or two until I get the hang of where to turn in for the crosswind leg and the final approach'. Then you screw up courage to make a stab at it. You now know that it is practically impossible to get the beast down in one piece. You toy with the idea of screaming 'Mayday' over the R/T and hope that someone down there will help you by switching on the daylight. (I cannot remember getting a homing by D/F in those days, or indeed throughout my wartime service - until I ran across the homer 'Roedean' girls when I started flying Vampire fighters after the war ended.) You then realise that you, and you alone, have to get this death-trap down in one piece. So you begin to adjust. 'I'll bring it in on a lower glidepath angle' says you; and on the next pass, having recovered and overshot from the near miss of that one, you over-correct with similar palpitations. Eventually, after several abortive attempts (which you laughingly later term 'practice landings'), you throw the machine at the 'runway' and are astonished when it runs across the grass with the undercarriage just managing to remain intact. You taxy in, avoiding a hut or two, illuminated in a ghostly manner by the groundcrew's taxying wand instructions to you, brake to a halt, shut down the engine, all switches to the off position, climb out and, to the Chiefy's query "How was it Sarge?", you boast "OK Chiefy, port magneto drop just a touch over the limit, I thought" and swagger back to the crewroom as though you were 'Cat's Eyes' Cunningham himself.
What would I have done if I had lost the Chance light, remembering that the radio distress frequency 121.5 megacycles and D/F homings were mumbo-jumbo to most of us then? That's what keeps me from getting back to sleep when I awaken prematurely these nights.
* * * * *
The final stage of my training now approached. A small group of roughly half-a-dozen of us, chanced to pick out of the Operational Training Unit hat 'No 55 OTU, Annan, Scotland', and the aircraft type for use - the Hurricane Mk I, as wished for by me in the summer of 1938 at Prestwick. Mind you, by this time I had a hankering for the Spitfire, which had been receiving most of the publicity up to then, not totally justifiably from what the stats now tell us. But I was not complaining. It was better by far than heaving a heavy Wellington or Stirling round the skies in total darkness, and that is taking flight-quality alone into account.
After a quick dual-check in a Miles Master, a couple of exercises in a Link trainer (the early anonymous simulator) and a briefing on the Hurricane's cockpit controls, the Flight Commander filled in the authorisation book with 'Sept 7, Hurricane 6863, Pilot - Wood, Duty - Experience on Type, Landings - 2' and bawled into the crewroom from his hatchway window for me to get in and sign the book and get my finger out double-quick.
I wandered out with my parachute over my shoulder and approached the sinister grey fighter with the big reputation, powered by the famous 1050hp Rolls-Royce Merlin Mk 1 engine. A few other Hurricanes were dotted about, each on its own pan just off the perimeter track. A groundcrewman plugged the electrical starter trolley lead into the socket on the aircraft as he saw me approach. 'Here we go' I murmered, my dreams of the past four years, targeted on this specific moment, having now reached fruition. Nothing more to do now but take a quick stroll round the aircraft and pretend to the groundcrew that you know every nut and bolt of it. I slung my parachute over my bottom using the shoulder straps, clipping their end points into the harness quick-release box, fumbled the leg straps over each groin, through the castrating loop and up into the quick-release gubbins. Then you hoist the correct leg into the step protruding from the fuselage below the cockpit, stick your right mit into the handhold half-way up, and haul yourself onto the cockpit sill via the wing step, and then drop into the seat pan. You are now aware that you are in a really real aeroplane and have reached the top of the pile. I felt no apprehension at all, simply looking forward so much to handling the beauty, and was certain that I would enjoy every minute of manœuvring it (you will know the feeling when you buy your new Ferrari 456 and the salesman says "Its all yours, sir"). I connected the four seat-straps and began the pre-start checks.
On the cockpit's port console, elevator trim a notch up from neutral and rudder trim full starboard, mixture rich, throttle closed, propellor pitch fully fine, fuel lever to on. On the central instrument panel area, magneto switches at off, P2 compass checked, directional gyro set to compass heading, other instruments looking OK and not broken by some idiot's boot. Starboard console, VHF radio on with control tower frequency selected, undercarriage/flap H-type selector (like a car's gear lever) set to neutral and safety-catch set. Seat height adjusted to suit, seat harness lean-forward control operating OK, canopy sliding OK then locked at the open position. Finally, control column fully back, fully forward, fully left, fully right; rudder pedals fully left and right, and control surfaces seen to respond correctly to these movements.
Being satisfied that all is well, you shout to the starter trolley minder that you are ready to start; he calls "Switches off" and you check them at off, then echo back his call. He switches on the trolley, you howl "Contact", switch the magnetos to on and plunge your finger into the engine start pushbutton. As the engine fires, you carefully edge the throttle open until steady-runnning at idle is achieved for warm-up. When oil pressure, oil temperature and cylinder-head temperature are within limits, you point your thumb to the rear to show your desire for your crewman to hang himself over the tail to keep it on the ground while you run
the engine at full bore during checks of the efficiency of each magneto in turn, the functioning of propellor pitch and the readings of the engine instruments. While doing this, you notice and savour the beautiful sound of the finest piston engine known to aviation. Throttling back to idling, you call the control tower for taxy clearance; they reply giving the runway in use and altimeter pressure setting, which you repeat and reset respectively. You make the necessary sign to your crewman that you require chocks to be removed and you release your parked brake-lever and roll forward when you get the all-clear signal. Taxying must be done on this aircraft by weaving to left then right et seq, since the long nose hides the straight-ahead view when the aircraft is in the tail-down attitude. Coming to a halt at the marshalling point, it is advisable to give a quick burst of power on the engine to clear the plugs, and when given the OK for take-off by a flash from the green Aldis lamp of the controller in his caravan at the end of the runway, you roll forward and line up. A final waggle of the control column and rudder pedals to ensure that the control surfaces are obeying your commands and then smoothly open the throttle and release the brakes - and you are on your way.
A touch of rudder is always necessary, to pre-empt any tendency to swing due to the engine torque on the take-off run. As speed increases, the control column needs to be eased forward to raise the tail, enabling you to have a clear view ahead, and at the unstick airspeed slight backward pressure allows you to become airborne. With the undercarriage control lever being on the right console, a change of hands is necessary on the stick to select up on the lever; the inexperienced on his first flight on the Hurricane (and on the Spitfire too) can usually be recognised by the resulting up and down pitch movement of the aircraft just after take-off as he fumbles in his search for the lever. Rudder trim now gradually has to be reduced to zero and the throttle and propellor pitch reduced, the latter to achieve the climbing boost and engine RPM limits. Settling down at the optimum climbing speed, your selected altitude is soon reached and you now feel entitled to throw the aircraft about to assess the quality of its handling. Its most notable control is that of the ailerons, in which it is absolutely superb in reaction to a control input at any airspeed; its elevator control is by comparison more sluggish and heavy, but nevertheless perfectly adequate for a fighter. The Spitfire's control quality is the reverse of the Hurricane, its elevator control being superior to that of its ailerons, leading to wishes from fighter pilots for a modification to have the best of both in each aircraft type.
After a short sector recce and some aerobatic manœuvres, a return to base is required to see if you can land your steed. By this time in a prospective fighter-pilot's career, he is aware that anyone of this ilk worth his salt makes what became known as a 'Spitfire Approach' to land, born out of the requirement to have an unobstructed view of the runway at every point on the circuit except the round-out flare to land, when the long nose blots out the view ahead. This circuit is normally done by hurtling in on the dead side of the runway in a slight dive, fairly fast, and in line with the runway. When you reach the beginning of the runway, you must carry out a steep climbing turn to the downwind position where you reduce speed to select undercarriage down but continuing the bank and reducing height all the way to the run- way threshold, selecting flaps down as required to meet the circumstances. As they say, if you have to reduce bank to zero at any stage in the performance except for the round-out, you have failed miserably. The Hurricane, in my two landings authorised, or in my many sub- sequent landings on the type, showed no problems.
The OTU course continued that autumn in a fairly uneventful way and, considering the high-speed low-flying passes at most objects in sight, it was a wonder that we did not have a single casualty or prang throughout. We took pride in our impeccable formation flying and
reckoned it would be hard to beat, and that our aerobatics were accomplished with precision and polish. However, the first upward vertical roll I attempted resulted in my engine chick- ening out in the straight-up vertical climb bit, just as I was about to roll, and I was left hanging in mid-air with the propellor stationary in front of me. I managed to get the nose pointed at the ground before the expected spin took over and, with speed increasing, the propellor commenced rotation again and the engine restarted without any help from me - much to my relief. I presumed carburettor misbehaviour had a lot to do with the stoppage. It taught me never to get in to that position if any enemy aircraft were liable to be around.
The early flying on the course was designed to get us completely familiar with the handling of the aircraft. Map reading, cross-countries, cloud flying, close formation, practice forced landings and aerobatics were the general run of things. In mid-course, we progressed to simulated dogfighting, lots of low flying, a concentrated week of air firing at a towed target flag, ciné-gun attacks and some dusk and night flying. The low flying area I chose was the Lake District. To get there I flew across the Solway Firth from my base at Annan, keeping my eyes peeled for aircraft coming out of the Lockheed Hudson OTU at Silloth on the Wigton- shire coast. (In fact, the Solway was better known to us as Hudson Bay due to the several aircraft of that type which we heard had disappeared in to its waters following system mal- functions, usually engine failure.) I then made for Bassenthwaite Lake, the most northerly of the lakes, and plunged to as low as I dared before flying south along its length, pretending to be Henry Seagrave doing his world-record speedboat runs in Miss England. Then a quick jink over the Derwent river and down again to lake-level along Derwent Water, followed by a steep hard turn to port to do the same thing along Ullswater. Remembering the Hurricanes I had watched in the late 1930s doing similar runs on the Firth of Clyde, I could imagine the cognoscenti of the Lake District cheering me on and saying to each other "There goes one of our lads, God bless him" - or more likely from the sheep farmers "Blast his damn hide, my sheep are going demented with these shenanigans every day".
Night flying now lost some of its terrors. A modifcation to this aircraft (and to others similarly engined) solved the problem of the blinding glare from the engine exhaust. The change consisted simply of a strip of aluminium, about three inches in width, fixed above each of the exhaust ports on either side of the nose. Additionally, operating with a coastline immediately adjacent to base provided a prime navigational aid which largely removed the fear of getting lost in the dark. The extra night flying experience also helped allay some of these fears. Later in my flying career, of course, the unobscured view ahead in jet aircraft was just what the doctor ordered.
In the final phase of the course, we moved to Annan's satellite airfield at Longtown a few miles to the east, just past Gretna Green, to make space for a fresh intake at Annan. The exhilaration of flying the Hurricane made time pass rapidly and the authorisation sheets in this stage shows the variety of the sorties, viz low-flying formation, dogfights, astern chases, aerobatics, low-flying cross-countries etc. Finally, on 8 November 1942, we prepared for the traditional OTU flypast 'Balbo' over Annan to signify our final flight of the course, in a formation then being used by the operational fighter squadrons in the south - the sweep formation. This comprised 12 aircraft in three sections of four aircraft in line astern, the sections being in Vic. This formation was also used, with hair-raising perils, in great gaggles of aircraft, for commemorative events after the war, such as the 200 or so fighter aircraft for the Battle of Britain flypast over London on 15 September 1947 and the RAF display at Farnborough on 7 July 1950. It was a difficult enough formation for station-keeping for those at the back of the leading squadron's 12 aircraft whose leader's throttle was stationary; so think what it was like for the remaining squadrons, all in line-astern on the lead squadron, in such a flypast of a dozen or so squadrons with the required corrective power changes horribly accentuated the whole way down the line to the final aircraft!
When we landed at Longtown after our 'Balbo', we congratulated each other upon surviving the course without a single fatality. In our first week at Annan, we had witnessed a pilot of the previous intake make a very hurried emergency landing at base, streaming all of his glycol coolant on the way in, and we had expected similar close shaves or worse. We prepared ourselves for the celebration in the Mess that evening accordingly. The talk of the afternoon concerned our performance that morning in the 'Balbo', and some crystal-balling about in which of the famous 10, 11 or 12 Group squadrons in the south we would shortly serve. It all crashed to the ground at tea-time however, when we were informed that we were to continue with the course for another short period due to 'the exigencies of the Service' (again). We were now convinced that the great aviator up there was not too happy at seeing us get off scot-free, and had arranged things to let us know that He wasn't having any. We all took considerable care in our subsequent flying till the end of the course one week later. Except for the very last flight that is, when we were allowed, unofficially, to fly a final sortie to beat the hell out of the flight huts; the instructors looked on, we heard later, initially with broad grins on their faces which gradually turned to anger, since it went on too long . For that we got a half-hearted wigging. That afternoon, we were told of our destinations for our first postings on productive service for our Country. Three or four of us were posted to Common- wealth-connected Squadrons in the Groups defending the UK. The rest of us were posted to an Armed Merchant Cruiser by the name of 'Caernarvon Castle' which was to take us to Africa. We were flabbergasted!