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!