On 4th September 1939, the second anniversary of the wedding day of my wife and myself, war was declared on Germany. I had just completed digging in our Anderson air-raid shelter in the back garden, and like many other young people at that time, felt that war was inevitable against Hitler.
In those days, as a librarian in a public library and being just twenty-five years old, I was really exempt from call-up, but no one really bothered about a trifle like that, and I decided to join up in a non-flying capacity in the R.A.F., my vision having always been bad from a child. A week later, I was just going down the front garden-path of our semi-detached house to sign on, when the post-man stopped with a letter postponing my signing-on until further notice. Having told the local government authorities I was going, I still decided my wife ought to return to Bolton in Lancashire where all our relatives were to stay with her mother. I went to stay with Methodist friends, but after two weeks of this, I returned to work, my wife came back from Bolton to Wolverhampton where I was then working, re-opened our house, and we continued like this for a further four weeks. I was eventually called up four weeks later, being given half a day's notice, when I was sent to R.A.F. Cardington, Bedfordshire, of airship renown and then Huntingdon for initial training. Then I was 'posted' as it was termed to Cranwell, Lincolnshire.
At that time, the 'erks' (A.C.2.) accommodation consisted of barracks built before the First World War. Some 30 or so persons lived in them the windows were covered with a blue-wash, as the three 30 Watt electric bulbs were, as a blackout precaution. Rats, of course, inhabit all aerodromes, and I have never forgotten being wakened one night by another 'erk' who woke to find a rat on his chest. Fortunately, I discovered after some 2 - 3 weeks that one could get permission to 'live-out' if you, yourself, could find suitable accommodation. On the first free Sunday, I walked the 7 - 8 miles to Sleaford, and being successful, applied for the necessary official permission and my wife came to live with me again in digs after the first Christmas of the war.
That winter was very cold with huge snow drifts on either side of the road. When these reached 10ft. high the special bus that ferried R.A.F. personnel backwards and forwards was in danger of being suspended. Luckily, it kept going, because the thought of returning to live in those barracks did not appeal to me.
By February, 1940, I had 'passed out' as L.A.C. (Leading Air Craftsman). I had never found it difficult to pass exams, but this created problems when, at that time, lower ranks with some years of experience were classed as 'A.C.2.' or 'A.C.1.', and had more R.A.F. experience as well. It also gave me extra pay, always welcome, because at that time my pay was 2/0d [Two shillings] per day, of which 1/0d was deducted to go to my wife, making her allowance £1-5s-0d per week.
Luckily, I was 'posted' to R.A.F. Silloth, on the Solway Firth between Scotland and England. My wife travelled with me, the first time we had been so far north, and we have never forgotten crossing the River Tyne at Newcastle to find it frozen. Arriving at Silloth at 6.30 a.m. accommodation had to be found at once for my wife; we were lucky to find it with a Methodist family, being Methodists; I had to re-apply for permission to 'live-out'.
R.A.F. Silloth was controlled by 'Coastal Command', and my subsequent 'postings' were to Coastal Command aerodromes. At that time "Hudsons", American aircraft, were ferried to Silloth via Iceland to be fitted with Boulton-Paul gun-turrets and other machine guns, etc. Silloth was also used for training air crew. There were so many crashes in the Solway Firth that it was known by the R.A.F. as "Hudson's Bay".
After a year we went to Norwich, and we were there during its bombing at the same time as other Cathedral towns, i.e. York, Canterbury, etc. After being 'posted' overseas several times, and having these 'postings' cancelled for various reasons, I decided to apply for a commission and was accepted.
Finally, after further officer training, I went to St. Eval, Cornwall, from where I was eventually 'posted' overseas some six months later.
Sailing from Gourock on the Firth of Clyde on 19th July, 1943, we sailed out into the Atlantic, passed through the Straits of Gibralter and docked in Algiers on the 28th July, going on to a French village called Fort de l'eau. Our first job was to do our own laundry, write letters home to say we had arrived safely at an "unknown destination", go for a bathe, and get some French money. I then had to see Air Vice Marshall Sir H.P. Lloyd at the Headquarters of Coastal Command, North Africa, before being 'posted' to Blida, some miles from Algiers. We were able to bathe, but had to be careful about sunbathing, this bveing liable to give one "gippy" tummy or diarrhoea, and the standard medical treatment was one tablespoonful of castor oil, then back to duty. Sympathy was definitely not given, so one did not get sunburnt again. While at Blida I hitch-hiked to Chrea, a noted beauty spot of North Africa, with monkeys jumping around everywhere.
From there I received a further 'posting' to Bône, exactly 6 years after I was married. Strangely enough, I was flown there in a Hudson aircraft; the mechanics stopped it as it was taking off, made some more adjustments which took 1½ hours, but we finally arrived after a 2½ hour's flight. I made the rest of the journey by road to a unit at Tunis, and heard 3 days later that Italy had capitulated. Around this time my watch was lost, and I was lucky to be on the spot when an Australian pilot landed from Cairo en route to England with Swiss wristlet watches for sale. I bought one for 10 guineas, and still wear it.
This was the season of the year when the rains came and the hot sirocco winds bated somewhat. I have never forgotten getting soaked to the skin as we 'sheeted' over some equipment to give it some protection from a sudden, squally shower, or seeing 'sheet' lightening dance along the tops of the Atlas Mountains.
I also had to make several visits to a mobile R.A.F. dental surgery. He came just in time to save me losing many teeth, for this sort of Service Life had given me gum trouble. However, a number of visits to him did all that was needed.
Our unit moved to a site between Tunis and Bizerta, the biggest port between Algiers and Cairo, ready to sail to Italy when ordered to go. We sailed on Saturday, 5th October, at 5 a.m. on a L.S.T. (Landing Ship for Tanks, etc.) the vehicles driving straight on to the ships. At this time, this was a new development in ships, although it is now common enough. After some delays, we arrived at Taranto, Southern Italy, at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, 27th October.
Rain fell for several days, but we camped in an olive grove near Grotaglie, sent E.F.M. telegrams home giving our new address, (if my memory is correct, we were permitted to tell our folks we were now in Italy) managed to get hot showers for everyone, bought 3 piglets to fatten up (on left-over scraps) for Christmas - having one butcher and one farmer among our men, and £2 each piglet suited the Italian peasants - and we hoped to supplement our rations. We now started to get the 'hang' of Italian lira after francs. Some of us went to Bari and dined on soup, fish which was selected while swimming in a glass tank, chicken, and orange for a total of 4/3d [Four shillings three pence]. We quickly progressed to Foggia where many aircraft were located, many of them being American Liberators or Flying Fortresses.
Some of our technical chaps contrived, with the aid of 2 inch bore piping, etc. to rig up some showers, and also heat the water on a mixture of waste-oil and water; this was an incredible luxury, especially as many of the men and officers were smitten with malaria which they had caught in Bône in North Africa. The remedy to prevent this was quinine which was only issued to flying crew because of its scarcity; a new drug, mepachrine, had just been discovered as a substitute for quinine, it was a little yellow pill, horrible to take, and made your skin yellow after some time. To prevent men not taking it, at one meal each day an officer had to stand by and see that each man took his pill. I, myself, loathed them, but one result is that I've always been able to swallow pills from then. By this time, it was Christmas, and some of us went to Midnight Mass taken by an American padre in a Catholic church still standing in Foggia.
At this time we also were inoculated again against typhus, tetanus, etc. Then, the army and navy started an invasion near Rome, and things became quieter for us. I had my first car-driving lesson from one of my colleagues in a 15 cwt. Bedford lorry; in those days, one had to double de-clutch. I also managed to have a fair number of letters; air-mail and the 'new' method of photo-copying called photo-stats allowed these to come quickly. My wife wrote one to me every day of all the years I was overseas, and numbered them so that I knew if any were missing, and also sent books, parcels, etc. As officers, much time was spent in "censoring" letters; a number of times letters contained the sarcastic words "talk about sunny Italy"; there had been nothing but rain and wind until then, with snow a little later! One officer heard his wife was ill and his London home bombed - very unsettling for anyone serving abroad because one felt so helpless - he asked to be allowed to go back to England.
On 20th May, 1944, I was 'posted' to Headquarters to a Liaison Unit under M.A,C.A.F. back in Algiers, so flew from Foggia via Trigno and Naples. Some weeks before this, some officers and men had been granted leave in Italy and had gone to Naples where "rest" accommodation was provided. On our arrival we found Vesuvius, the volcano, in eruption violently; we tried to go by lorry to Castelamarra, but could not get through the peasants fleeing the eruption. While in Naples we went to the San Carlo Theatre to see the opera "Carmen", with an orchestra of over 100 players; to us this theatre with rows and rows of galleries and boxes and enormous stage was superb - most of us had never seen anything like this at all. Some employment was found in this way for unemployed Italians; their army, navy and air-force had capitulated by this time, though Mussolini, himself, was still fighting on with Hitler, and the Germans were still fighting in the Monte Cassino area.
I managed to buy presents of some sort to send back to U.K., and bought a second-hand folding camera for myself. Some of us went to Pompeii and Herculaneum and Sorrento, and grateful for this welcome break in normal activities, returned to Foggia via Salerno and Aveline. On our return, the B.B.C. radio reporter, Dennis Johnstone, made a recording of our activities for reproductions for the folk back home.
In Algiers once again I found myself working with American personnel, and billeted in a French hotel - quite a big change from my previous surroundings. Then on 4th June, 1944, we heard that Rome was captured, and that two days later the invasion of Normandy had been made from England. Four weeks later we sailed from Algiers on the "Ville d'Oran", made a safe crossing (no U-boats seen), and docked at Naples three days later, where all our personnel were stationed at Caserto, the erstwhile Palace of the King of Naples, a magnificent building which had recently been used by the Italian Air force. A few days later, I saw King George VI leaving the Palace with General Wilson, a sight which brought great encouragement to British hearts.
On the night of August 4th I had gone to watch an exhibition of boxing by the heavy weight champion of the world, Joe Louis. Also watching was an R.A.F. Wing Commander, who asked to see me as soon as I came on duty the next morning. He said that I was to be a Liaison Officer with the French Air force, and when I protested that my only knowledge of the French language was what I had been taught for the Metriculation Certificate in 1929 he replied,
I stayed with the French Air Force until 20th October, 1945, i.e. for sixteen months in all, and during that time travelled by boat, road, or air to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Alsace and Germany, and England several times; I acquired a very competent speaking ability in the French language, and a good knowledge of French life and customs, so much so that when this French Colonel went to Saigon, Indo-China, with his Spitfire aircraft, he was very annoyed at my refusal to go with them. I was 'posted' to another R.A.F. unit in France.
By that time, it was more than 6 years since I had originally volunterred for the R.A.F. and I was longing to be demobbed for 'civvy street'. This took place on 6th December, 1945.
For my services to the French Government during the war, I was awarded the French Légion d'Honneur, degré de Chevalier.
This article was first published in the MARFLEET Society Newsletter, Volume 1, Number 4, Pages 27-30. (April 1977)
[In a letter dated Tuesday, 2nd August, 1949, Henry wrote:
[In a letter dated Tuesday, 2nd August, 1949, Henry wrote:
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