One Damn Thing After Another By Terry Wilson
1939 and All That
On the 3rd of September 1939 Great Britain declared war on Germany because Germany had invaded Poland. It was about 10.00 am on a Sunday. I was practicing diving at the Empire Pool Wembley when a public announcement was made saying the pool was closed and war had been declared. In fact the message started as I left the 10 metre high board and I almost got the gist of it before I entered the water. The Empire Pool, which also served as an ice rink, was to become a temporary morgue for cadavers resulting from enemy bombs.
I had read about the last war that ended one month before I was born. Books like All Quiet on the Western Front and several others told me of the horrors of trench warfare. Of disease and death and thousands of lives being lost to defend or conquer some seemingly pointless hill or strategic location.
I was unenthused about the prospect of dying to save Poland from Germany. I was almost equally unenthused by the thought of fighting and dying for my King and country. The King I did not know and I had always thought of him as a figurehead of the British Empire, a symbol with which to impress primitive pagan natives throughout almost one fifth of the world. As to dying for one’s country, based on the little history I had learned at school it seemed that almost every country at some time or other had been conquered by another and historically the conquered countries were never worse off and usually better off. For example I had been taught about the contributions the Romans and later the Normans made to this country. And similarly the history of every country in Europe was littered with conquests which, except for the resistance at the time, seemed to have done no one any harm and was invariably claimed as a cultural benefit. In addition to which, in the back of my nomadic mind, I felt I could always go elsewhere if I did not like my new rulers. Being part of a British Empire that covered one fifth of the globe engendered such attitudes.
At the time I worked as a laboratory technician in Kodak’s Works Laboratory. I was 20 years old and very fit. I would not be in a reserved occupation. In fact I recognised that I was perfect canon fodder. I had to decide between what to me were unacceptable alternatives. I could volunteer my services and probably die in the trenches. I could wait to be called up and die in the trenches. I had no hope of becoming a conscientious objector on religious grounds. (The only grounds ever accepted.) In any case if such a plea were accepted I would then have to go unarmed as a medical orderly to die in the trenches. I could refuse any of these alternatives and go to prison. I thought about it and did nothing.
Then a slightly more acceptable alternative occurred. One that I thought might be the lesser of the evils facing me. The RAF started a Photo Reconnaissance Unit (PRU.) and called upon Kodak for photo technicians to staff this new unit. I volunteered in 1939 and was called up early in 1940 as a leading aircraftsman (LAC.) photographer.The non-commissioned ranks in the Air Force were, from the bottom up:
AC2—Aircraftsman 2nd class i.e. untrained
AC1—Aircraftsman 1st class i.e. slightly trained
LAC—Leading aircraftsman i.e. trained
Corporal—i.e. trained with authority over a small group
Sergeant—i.e. trained but looks after paper work
Flight Sergeant—i.e. has forgotten his training and only looks after paperwork that goes to higher authorities
Warrant Officer—An almost mythical person that no one knows what to do with. I never met one in the photographic trade in the RAF.
Then above all these are the commissioned ranks, the officers.
I and others from Kodak joined the RAF as LACs (i.e. trained) and most of us knew more about the photographic processes than the few regular RAF photographers that we joined. However we were not familiar with RAF equipment and procedures so I, and a few others, were sent to Heston aerodrome to be given brief instructions into the ways of the RAF. Our instructor was a middleaged sergeant, a likable character for whom later I felt a kindred feeling. Many years before as a boy apprentice he had joined the Air Force to avoid going down the mines and I had joined the Air Force to avoid going into the trenches.
He explained a few things that were second nature to us. ‘Only open boxes of paper in the dark room and then only if the correct safe light is used’ and so on until he came to tell us about cameras. He started with a half plate stand camera having a tilting and rising front and a swing back, a lens complete with lens cap, but no shutter. He went through the operation of this basic equipment in some detail and mostly got it right. He then came to the lens. He explained the operation of the iris diaphragm.“You have no shutter?” I queried.
“No,” he said. “You stop the lens right down and use the lens cap to control the exposure time in seconds. You can be very accurate if you count seconds like this.” He removed the lens cap and with hand poised said “One little second, two little seconds, three little seconds, and so on.”“What if the correct exposure is two and a half seconds?” I asked.
“Easy” he replied. “One little second, two little seconds and a half of a little second.”
I felt there was not much hope of us winning the war.
It took a long time for the regulars, as they were known, to get used to the concept that winning a war was more important than keeping out of trouble with their superiors and getting a high enough rank to support their retirement from the RAF. Keeping out of trouble meant meticulous attention to detail to avoid any possibility of being at fault. For example, stores inventory had to be checked by a higher authority at regular intervals. The higher authority did not wish to find anything wrong because this might represent a ‘black mark’ against him. So, well before all inspections, an advance warning was leaked so those in charge could either make the books match the inventory or make the inventory match the books. Generally speaking the tradition was: With shortages you loaded them on to a ‘write off’. It was amazing what some aircraft had theoretically carried into battle before they failed to return! Excess inventory you hid—one way or another.
At the height of the Battle of Britain, when the country was down to almost no replacement Hurricanes and Spitfires, and no spares left for those that were otherwise airworthy, a stores inspection was scheduled at the PRU station where I was stationed.
The ACI storesman, who occupied the bed next to mine, told me how they solved the problem of having one Rolls Royce Merlin aircraft engine more than was indicated in their books. At the back of the stores building they dug a large hole, manhandled this almost invaluable spare into it and buried it for all time. The inventory inspection went through uneventfully. Again I wondered how we could possibly win the war.
Sometimes the wastefulness of war could be put to some use. Photographic processes depend on many different chemicals and one of them, sodium thiosulphate, commonly known as hypo, or fixer, is common to almost all processes. A photographic section could not function without it.
At the height of the German U boat campaign our supplies in Africa were being lost and we were instructed to triple the frequency of our orders for chemicals and double the quantity. The thinking being that if one order in three got through that order being double the quantity would last twice as long.
The inevitable happened. All orders came through and we had six times the quantity we could possibly use.
The climate in West Africa is hot and humid—commonly 90˚ F with a relative humidity of 90%. The hypo crystals were not in humidity proof containers and hypo is a deliquescent substance. In other words, exposed to humid air it becomes liquid.
When certain chemicals are combined with others they give off heat. For example, put water into sulphuric acid and the solution will boil. On the other hand the combination of some substances absorb heat. To absorb heat they must be cold. Hypo is one of these. Dissolve hypo crystals in water and you have a solution of ice cold liquid. Oranges, lemons and grapefruit were abundant in the area and for many weeks the photo section could supply cold fruit drinks chilled by immersion in a daily vat of hypo solution.
This private system of mine of refrigerating cold drinks became very popular and each morning a queue of local natives grew outside the photosection each carrying a container of fruit juice. These were immersed in my hypo solution whilst their bearers sat around chatting. When cool enough they would take their drinks back to the different RAF sections in which they were employed as cleaners or general helpers. There the fitters, the armourers, the instrument technician etc would stop for their morning refresher of cool fresh fruit juice.
There was one unpopular Flight Sergeant in a position of authority in the orderly room. He was overbearing, authoritarian verging on the sadistic and was disliked by all and especially by his native employee who did all the menial chores in that section and had the job of getting the Flight Sergeant fruit juice every morning. His name was Kamabai. The Flight Sergeant liked sugar with his lemon and lime juice and every morning Kamabai would arrive at the photo section, add sugar to his container of juice, unbutton his trousers and stir his Flight Sergeant’s drink with his not unimpressive penis. This was his public way of getting back at his boss. At the lower level everyone in the camp knew of this procedure except of course the Flight Sergeant. Every day Kamabai would beamingly deliver his fruit drink and say ‘You like um Sah?’ or ‘You like me go get more Sah?’ and then, enjoying his secret victory, go back to cleaning the lavatory or sweeping the floor.
Another time photographic chemicals came in useful when I was stationed at a camp in Staffordshire. The food in the camp was poor. We tired of spam, bully beef and rat-trap cheese. One of the cooks who slept near me said it was not the fault of the cooks, it was the raw materials that were lacking. I had an idea and came to an agreement with him. In the centre of each of our Nissen huts, in which we slept, was a metal stove, our source of heat during the winter. The deal was that I would supply the essential ingredient if he would supply the trimmings such as vegetables. He would manage to prepare it and cook it in the mess kitchens and bring it in a container one evening to our hut. We would then reheat it over the stove and have an evening feast.
It was pheasant stew that I had in mind. I had noticed that the perimeter of the aerodrome on one side had a common boundary, well fenced, with a game reserve belonging to the Duke of something. I had also seen and heard pheasants there. Some even strayed through the fence onto the aerodrome.
Photographic prints were often needed urgently and photography being a wet process, the time taken to dry prints had to be hastened by soaking the prints in a 50% solution of methylated spirits and water. So the photo section was well supplied with meths. This, and a trick taught to me as a child by an old poacher I knew when in Sussex, was the key to our success.Dried peas soaked in methylated spirits scattered to form a trail through the fence were irresistibly attractive to pheasants. They gobbled them up and soon became so drunk that they were easy to catch and deliver to our cook. It was a memorable meal. Memorable perhaps because it was illegal and perhaps also enhanced because of its contrast to our normal dull diet.
Advice to Airmen
Advice to airmen: If you are off duty keep out of the way. In my six years in the RAF I can only recollect two occasions when I was called upon for duties other than photographic ones. This was probably because the skills of technicians such as engine and air frame fitters, armourers and numerous other trades dare not be spared for anything other than supporting air crews. Photographers seemingly were included in this group so cooks and clerks and other less technical trades could be more readily spared for parades and other such nonsenses that seemed to me to have little to do with winning a war. However, occasionally an emergency arises and anyone not on duty may be called upon at a moments notice.
Once when I was in my quarters off duty, I had to respond to ‘Corporal, take three men and report for a funeral duty.’ It seemed an airman was being buried in his home town nearby and the nearest RAF station was called upon to supply four airmen to carry the coffin. It was not a duty I looked forward to but I commandeered three airmen and we eventually arrived in the town to carry the coffin through the churchyard to the grave site. I had selected my three men at random. Two were significantly taller than I was and the third was slightly taller. Having no previous experience of carrying coffins it had not occurred to me that coffin bearers should all be of roughly the same height.
The moment the coffin was being removed from the hearse the problem dawned upon me so I put the two tallest ones at the rear and I, and the medium height airman, shouldered the coffin from the front. We proceeded at a slow march to the grave site with the coffin precariously angled from the back down to my right shoulder at the front. Not only was I then carrying most of the weight but, much to my distress that I dare not show, some liquid was seeping down and soaking my right shoulder.
I hope I remained expressionless. Perhaps it was water. Do coffins leak? And if so what? Surely they do not leave them outside to get wet. That march to the grave site seemed interminable and as soon as possible I paid to have my uniform dry-cleaned in the local village. The RAF do not offer dry-cleaning services.
The other occasion I was again called out early one evening. I had to take three airmen with me to guard a crashed aircraft until the following morning when it would be properly taken care of, whatever that meant. Our instructions were to drive to a location in Cannock Chase where one of our aircraft had crashed.
It was a clear moonless night with lots of aerial activity overhead and as we got to the scrub covered heathland we could see the flames and smell the burning wreck ahead. The wreck site was pungent with the acrid smell of burning aluminium, fuel and corpses. Clearly there were no survivors of the bomber. There were two visible torsos—I could see one with no head or limbs, the other with no head. Bits of aircraft were everywhere within about a 100 feet diameter area, some burning and some smouldering. I could see the tail fin of a small bomb beneath some burning fabric. I pulled it clear thinking the heat might explode it. I wondered if there were any more but I could see none. I imagine the plane had dived vertically into the earth thereby leaving the wreckage in a relatively small area.
One of my men was vomiting near a small bush. I wondered why people instinctively go to something to vomit over or under. There was clearly nothing we could do. Just wait around until morning. But I was concerned about the possibility of bombs or ammunition exploding in the fire so I organised the men to make themselves comfortable below a low bank that might give some protection if anything blew up. Something did.
The fire still smouldered and burned fitfully and aircraft were still active overhead and then it started. The danger was not from the crashed aircraft but from our own aircraft overhead. Cannock Chase was a practice bombing range and they thought the fire of the crashed aircraft was a bombing target. Apparently no one had told them of the crash and they bombed us intermittently for the next two hours with small practice bombs.
My three men suggested we get the hell out of it. I pointed out that our transport had gone. We were in the middle of Cannock Chase and statistically practice bombs rarely hit their target. I do not think they believed me any more than I believed myself. Soon after dawn we were very pleased to get away from that hell hole.
Even today, as I write this, I can recollect that smell of burning fuel, aluminium and people.
Bombs Relieve the Monotony
Late in 1939 the RAF took over the Aircraft Operating Company in Wembley and integrated it into the RAF Photographic Reconnaissance Unit. The attraction was that this gave PRU’s Interpretation Unit access to a Wild machine. This machine permitted stereoscopic vision of photographic pairs. The operator could then trace interesting detail with a pointer and simultaneously plot it to scale on a paper plotter. Accurate measurement of detail could then be made. Early in 1940 I was posted from Heston to Wembley where I and other RAF photographers made photographic prints from aerial negatives. We operated three shifts that covered 24 hours each day.
The information extracted by this interpretation unit was vital to the war effort but it was very dull for me, just making prints for eight hours each day. I can only think of three events during my Wembley posting worthy of recounting.
The first was when they decided to build an air raid shelter for the personnel. This was the time when night raids on London were daily occurrences. The builders started work on the foundations of this structure. One, when wielding a pickaxe, uncovered a store of IRA bombs. Almost sixty years later IRA bombs are still with us. Some problems are insoluble.
On another occasion I was cycling along the Harrow Road to start my midnight shift when a bomb fell ahead of me. Knowing that ‘Jerry’ normally dropped a ‘stick’ of bombs, and working on the principle that two bombs almost never fall on the same spot I pedalled furiously towards the explosion and reached there as another bomb dropped behind me.
The first bomb had fallen near a house close to the main road. The walls of the house seemed to have collapsed inwards and the roof, largely intact, had settled down on the pile of rubble. From inside the shattered house I could hear what sounded to me like hysterical female screaming. I tried unsuccessfully to find a way into the rubble but soon rescue and ambulance teams arrived so I left the problem to them and proceeded on to my night shift.
Two days later when having a drink in the local pub I heard someone recounting this rescue work. He was a member of the heavy rescue team. I went over and asked him about survivors and mentioned the screaming I had heard. Surprisingly he grinned and said they had managed to rescue the sole occupant, an elderly lady. She was almost naked and laughed hysterically all the way to the hospital. Eventually they calmed her down and she explained she had got up during the night to go to the loo. She pulled the chain and the whole bloody house came down. This struck her as extremely funny.
War time humour is often a defence mechanism against adversity. I remember on one occasion coming home on unannounced leave to find the home empty. I rightly assumed my mother had gone shopping and eventually found her standing in a lengthy queue outside the butcher’s shop. I greeted her with natural filial affection. We chatted a while. The queue hardly moved. Then the butcher in his blue and white bloodstained apron came out of the shop and loudly announced ‘All pregnant ladies come to the front of the queue’. There was a brief silence until an aged wizened figure with wrinkled stockings and a woolly hat topping her grey hair said ‘Ow about if you ain’t sure?’. The queue laughed. The butcher said ‘Come on granny,’ and beaming with a toothy grin she trotted to the front of the queue.
The other occasion that comes to mind when I recollect Wembley war time days was when I attended a dance and general social gathering one evening at Kodak’s social club. Kodak’s factory and social amenities for employees, and ex-employees then in the forces, was at Wealdstone about six miles from the aircraft operating company in Wembley.
I travelled to Wealdstone by train, spent a pleasant social evening that included a few more drinks than conservative wisdom might decree and missed the last train back to Wembley. I did not fancy the six mile walk and, because I was not due on duty until 4 pm the next afternoon, I decided to sleep in Kodak’s large empty air raid shelter located in the middle of a group of their playing fields.
The shelter was a long semi-underground structure with a Nissen Hut type roof covered on the outside with a thick layer of earth. Inside were long rows of wooden slatted seats.My outer coat rolled up to form a pillow and a combination of youth, tiredness and a little too much alcohol soon sent me into blissful sleep that lasted until the diffused light of dawn stirred me to wakefulness. The light was diffused because of some fabric hanging over the entrance. I stretched myself into a functioning being, pushed the fabric aside to inspect the day and went outside.
As I looked around I saw people at the distant entrance to the grounds waving and shouting to me. ‘Land mine. Come here’ seemed to be the gist of their message so I strolled over to them. They explained to me that during the previous night a German land mine had floated down on its parachute and come to rest leaning against the side of the air raid shelter that I had adopted for the night. It was the parachute that obstructed the entrance.
I had happily been sleeping beneath the mine. I do not know if it had been ticking away or had some other mechanism to cause it to explode. I understand the Navy was called in to defuse it. I wonder why the Navy was given that unpleasant task. I wonder also why no one checked to see if the air raid shelter was occupied when they discovered the land mine. Perhaps they decided that was a job for some one else.
The Churchills and I
The social gap, and all other gaps, between me and Sir Winston Churchill, the cigar smoking head of the country during the second world war, could not have been greater. He was at the top urging us to greater efforts with his victory V gestures, and I was close to the bottom, an RAF leading aircraftsman. But briefly and insignificantly our paths crossed.
In the early forties I was working in the darkroom in an RAF Interpretation Unit making contact prints from 9”x 7” aerial negatives. A contact printer is essentially a sheet of glass large enough to support a negative beneath which is a light source and above which is a means of holding a sheet of printing paper in intimate contact with the negative. With a negative in position and a light beneath it one can view all the details of a negative.
The darkroom curtains parted and the sergeant came in exuding an aura that seemed to be about 50% panic and 50% authority.
“Stand to attention,” he said. “The CO’s bringing round an important visitor”. I stood to attention beside my trusty contact printer. The negative in position and the light on, showing an aerial view of the sand dunes and inland waterways of the Dutch coast.
The CO ushered in none other than Sir Winston himself. Although he was not wearing his Homburg hat nor smoking his cigar and he did not stick his two fingers up to me denoting the victory V sign, his chubby features were unmistakable. Also the CO addressed him as Sir Winston.
“What’s this?” the CO said looking at the illuminated negative.
“Dutch coast,” I replied, “sortie 011 on March 24th”.
“Ah yes,” he said knowingly, urging Sir Winston to take a closer look. “Now you see that little speck in that waterway. With stereo pairs of photographs and by comparing pictures taken at different times on different days, we will be able to identify what it is, where it has come from and its probable intentions.”
Sir Winston rubbed his eyes. Peered at it again and uttered a sort of grunt that could have indicated either approval or disbelief and stomped out with the CO.
When they had gone I lifted the negative and removed a stray speck of foreign matter from the glass. This was the object that had caught the CO’s attention and about which he professed to be militarily concerned.
The other occasion when I came in touch with the Churchill family was when his daughter, Sara, who later married the comedian Vic Oliver, joined the WAAF and she and I were located at the same RAF station. As I assumed a political gesture she first came into the WAAF as an aircraft woman before she was later given a commission. In her temporary role I met her and suggested that a photograph of her would be welcomed by the press and, what’s more, I could take it. The answer was a categorical no. And if I ever suggested such a thing again she would report me to Daddy. What worse a threat, what more finely balanced sword of damocles, could a lowly aircraftsman have hanging over him than being reported, not to the CO or to the Air Marshal, but to Daddy himself. The Daddy who ruled the country and defeated Hitler and all his Axis hordes. I backed off; I was not then a member of the fourth estate.
A Memory Best Forgotten
It was one of England’s beautiful summer days. The sun was shining, white clouds drifted past. Bees hummed and a few of our planes flew over to drop death and destruction somewhere far away from the little village I was walking towards.
I was off duty that day and had decided to walk to Pam’s cafe in the village. Somehow, despite food rationing and the fact that members of the forces had no food stamps to offer, Pam always seemed able to produce a good fry-up of egg, bacon, sausage and baked beans. How she did it nobody knew and, because most of her customers were from the nearby RAF station, nobody asked. A good fry-up was a welcome change from our dreary mess food.
On the outskirts of the village I stopped to look in the junk shop that sometimes was open but more often closed. On this occasion it was open and a tattered paperback, published by Penguin Books, written by Sir James Jeans entitled ‘The stars in their courses’ caught my eye.
Astronomy interested me and it appeared to be written for ordinary mortals not scientists, so, for a few pennies, I bought it. I went on to Pam’s cafe that was almost empty, sat at one of her oilcloth covered tables by the window and got interested in descriptions of white dwarfs and other astronomical phenomena as I consumed my fry-up.
I was so engrossed with my book I did not notice the arrival of a young woman until, as she passed my table and swung to sit down, her handbag, slung over her shoulder, knocked my book to the floor. We both bent down, banged heads, apologised and got into conversation from adjacent tables. She had noted the subject matter of my book and enquired if I was in the Meteorological Section. I explained I had just bought it to relieve my boredom and asked who she was and what did she do. It transpired her name was Dorothy and she was a member of a Women Auxiliary Service that delivered military planes from the aircraft manufacturer to RAF stations and sometimes flew them back from RAF stations to the manufacturers for repair or modifications.
She was nice. I would not say she was beautiful in the glamour girl sense but I was attracted and we chatted easily about I know not what as we consumed our respective fry-ups. Neither of us had any plans for the rest of the day so we agreed to catch a bus to the nearest town where there was a cinema. We checked with Pam, who always knew everything, as to what was being shown at the town’s Ritz cinema. We both agreed that it was some old cowboy film not worth seeing until I explained a little scheme I had to liven up the proceedings. She laughingly agreed and armed with a small discarded cardboard box from Pam’s waste bins, we took a foot path through some meadows. Here we caught a collection of flying insects that were flitting from flower to flower and stored them in our cardboard box. Then to the bus stop, on into town in time to catch the late afternoon performance of ‘Hi Ho Silver’ or some such epic.
We sat at the back beneath the projection box. The lights dimmed. The film started and I opened the box and released the insects. They welcomed their freedom but not the darkness, so in a little flock of mixed species and sizes they headed for the projector’s beam above our heads. The effect was dramatic. Monstrous silhouettes appearing to have five to ten feet wingspans flapped across the screen. The operator recognising the problem opened a small window beside the projector. He reached through with a ruler to drive them off. On the screen this looked like flying dinosaurs dodging telegraph poles.
The manager recognising he had a problem, stopped the film, turned on the lights and announced that the film would continue shortly. The insects then moved away from the darkened projector probably to the lights in the ceiling. The lights went out again, the projector started and the bugs returned. But soon their numbers thinned. I suppose they got tired. The film continued more or less normally and we left to make our way back to camp.
During the next few months we met twice more. Each time she was delivering a plane. Then one day I was at a dispersal bay where aircraft were parked. At the far end of the runway a plane had landed and taxied to its nearby parking bay when the ambulance dashed by. Someone had got out of the plane and accidentally and fatally walked into the still rotating propeller. I later learned that it was Dorothy. War is stupid and hell. Somewhere I still have that old paperback.
Whenever possible troop ships should be avoided. This advice is based on my experience during the second world war. Perhaps today, in what is sometimes called peace time, they are like a happy cruise ship. That certainly was not true in war time.
I, with seemingly thousands of others, boarded the Narkunda, an old P&O liner docked at Greenock near Glasgow. We were herded down interminable steel stairways until finally positioned near the top of the keel, if such vessels have a keel. Here was an area about eight feet in height into which three layers of members of the armed forces could be housed. The bottom layer was the floor. The middle layer was the surfaces of several sturdy tables running the length of the room and the top layer consisted of a complete wall to wall array of hammocks. Nearby there was a doorless 6 or 8 seater lavatory. Apart from the lack of chains it seemed to me not far removed from a slave ship. This accommodation was where we were to eat, sleep and live whilst we headed to an unknown destination through German submarine infested seas.
Unfortunately I was not allocated an end position in the congested row of hammocks. My adjacent hammockers both decided to have their heads near my feet so I inevitably had a pair of feet about eighteen inches away on each side of my head. I looked at my neighbours and, having then a somewhat jaundiced view of the whole operation, decided their heads were no better than their feet. I wondered if they had jointly decided that my feet were preferable to my head.
Boarding the vessel took most of one day and we settled down to a restless night with the rumbling of heavy machinery coming from all directions.
The next day we wended our way to an upper deck to find we were in the midst of an impressive array of naval might heading out to sea. Ahead of us I could see an aircraft carrier, several destroyers, some minesweepers, a string of rusty hulled old freighters and way ahead a large grey vessel that was, I was informed, a battle ship. It was a most encouraging sight and I was surprised that the RAF valued me so highly.
We continued in convoy all that day and I retired to my hammock with some feeling of certainty that I would not drown during the night. The next morning I woke up and gradually made it to the deck to discover that our impressive escort and all other ships had left us. We were on our own in a February cold ocean with a lowering grey sky above. And all around me there were people being sick as we toiled our way through the Atlantic’s rolling seas.
Then boat drill was required. We were all allocated positions on the decks and told which raft was to be our secondary means of transport to the unknown should our primary vehicle disappear in pieces below the waves.
Having been informed of our emergency stations we were herded down to our respective accommodation places where we were to wait for the alarm signal that would trigger off the practicing to reach our boat stations in an orderly manner.
The alarm sounded and in an orderly manner we oozed our way up numerous stairways at the top of each we added to the density of the people also oozing their way up to the next level. Progress got slower and slower and the density of people increased as we neared the upper levels. It was over one hour before I got from my bottom layer to my boat drill position on deck. I calculated that if a German submarine fired a torpedo at us from thirty miles away and at which time I headed for the deck the torpedo and I would both arrive at the same time. I offered this observation to a fellow traveller standing next to me.
He thought for a moment and said in all seriousness, “Do German U boats give that much notice?”
I determined to find, as soon as possible, a means of improving the odds on my survival.
The opportunity occurred when several days later we had reached a somewhat warmer climate in the mid-Atlantic. I had noticed, by the position of the sun, that we had been steadily travelling south ever since we got well clear of Glasgow and Ireland. When wandering around the deck I had noticed an upright piano covered with a tarpaulin and lashed to the side of a super structure well away from the rails. The piano had been lashed firmly with the keyboard towards the wall. If one managed to avoid the pedals there was room to crawl into the space between the wall and the piano and be well covered by the tarpaulin. I decided to use this cave for sleeping for the rest of the voyage. From here I could get to my raft in a matter of seconds. I could not quantify how much this decision improved my odds on survival but it had the added advantage that I had exchanged two pairs of feet for the more sanitary piano and super structure walls.
When the time arrived for us all to return to the bowels of the ship I unobtrusively slid into the space behind my piano. I dozed off fitfully through the night ignorant of the ways of sailors. What I had not allowed for was that they hose down the decks early each morning. This became dramatically apparent to me when I discovered I was lying in a puddle of water. For the rest of the journey to West Africa I slept on the top of the piano.
I also had another difficulty on this voyage. I wrote airmail letters home saying very little to avoid upsetting my parents but I also wrote a letter to a friend of mine in which I told the truth about the conditions on board, especially the food that included rotten potatoes and decaying cabbage and other revolting brown objects that defied analysis or description.I then discovered that all mail was censored by a duty officer who had to make sure no one was giving away official secrets. I was called up before him and he held out my letter to my friend and said you cannot send this.
“Why not?” I asked. “You say the food is the worst you have ever had. Such statements are bad for morale.”
“Not at all,” I replied. “The worst I’ve ever had is a relative statement. This food may be nectar of the Gods to some. It is just that compared to my normal diet it is relatively the worst I’ve ever had.”
He looked a little surprised at my attempt to apply phoney logic and said “Well what do you normally eat?”
I replied, “Kedgeree, toast and marmalade for breakfast washed down with Costa Rica coffee. I eat a light lunch, usually smoked salmon with a watercress salad and something like beef wellington for dinner.”
He remained poker faced, wielded his scissors until my letter looked more like a tawdry Christmas decoration and said, “This is what you’ll send. Enjoy your lunch. I think it is spam and rotten potatoes.” It was.
My safety precautions proved to be unnecessary and without seeing another ship, friend or foe, we eventually arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone.
I have always found it quite easy to scribble down facts and impressions as they come to my mind. Others have more difficulty and whilst sitting on a hatch cover during this voyage I noticed an airman sucking his pencil whilst desperately trying to compose a sentence.
Also he noticed that I was scribbling away with little difficulty and asked “How the hell do you write at that rate?”“I don’t know,” I said. “What’s the problem?”
He then went on to explain that he and his friend had spent three or four days in Glasgow before boarding the Narkunda and they had picked up a couple of girls and he was anxious to give a good impression by writing to the one he had quite fallen for. Her name, he said, was Toots. It probably was not her real name but he had her address because he had twice taken her home. I offered to help him but I could not take it seriously. I used the most over-the-top phrases I could conjure up. I recollect one he particularly liked. ‘When the ship’s siren lets out a toot it reminds me of you’.
We both disembarked at Freetown and by coincidence both were sent to the transit camp in Sierra Leone having the unlikely name of Waterloo, where I was forced to continue this troopship relationship. It was here that he received a most favourable reply from Toots. Again he asked me to help him out and again I obliged with more tongue-in-cheek flowery phrases and these he dispatched adding SWALK which meant ‘sealed with a loving kiss’.
From Waterloo I flew on to Takoradi and some weeks later my non-literary acquaintance also arrived, again desperately needing my help. I dug into the depths of my similes, extracted exaggerating adjectives and adverbs and wrote another love letter for him. Then he left. To where I do not know. I wonder what happened to their romance. He never showed me Toots’s letters to him. I hope in the end she preferred the real person to the ridiculous caricature of a verbal Don Juan that I had created.
People in the forces are put into positions of authority. Many handle it well. A few, with sadistic characteristics take advantage of their position of power to demean and belittle those forced by circumstances to be subservient to them. On a troopship going back to England an airman told me how a senior NCO had conducted a reign of terror at various stations by picking on people for minor offences. Punishments were running round parade grounds with full packs on their backs in the tropic sun. The packs would contain bricks or stones and they had to run until they collapsed.
He went on to say that one night he sneaked up on to the deck for a last fag before bedding down and he saw this NCO leaning over the rail also smoking a fag and watching the fluorescence thrown up by the bow wave. He kept down, not wishing to be caught on deck, especially by this NCO, when he noticed two figures in stockinged feet silently come up behind the NCO. They each grabbed a leg and with a single surge hurled the NCO over the rail. Strangely he did not cry out. His glowing cigarette also arced into the ocean and with him was also extinguished.
The two avengers passed near my friend and saw the glow of his cigarette.
They stopped, came up to him and said, “How long have you been out here?”
“Just arrived,” he tactfully replied. They peered hard at him.
“Ain’t much left of your fag if you’ve just arrived,” one said.
“Just a butt end I lit up. Too good to waste before I bed down.”
They paused staring at him. “We ain’t been here you know.” It was a question as much as a statement.
He nodded. “I ain’t been here neither,” he said. They quickly left and he returned to his bed. He told me the NCO was listed as missing on active service.As I said, try to avoid troopships.
War is Trivia and Trauma
An airman was issued with a complete uniform and its associated kit. The clothing parts of such outfits were supplied in a range of sizes to fit airmen found in an even greater range of sizes.
Also when kitting out new recruits, the stores may suffer an unusually high demand for a few sizes. Such sizes will soon be exhausted and some unfortunate airmen may end up in clothes slightly too large for them. Unless they knew how to deal with the problem they were doomed to wear their ill fitting garb for a very long time.
To obtain a new garment the airman had to present the old garment to stores where it had to be officially judged worthy of being replaced due to ‘fair wear and tear’. If the garment appeared to have been deliberately damaged the owner would be reprimanded and sent away with instructions to repair it.
The solution to the problem of how to change a perfectly good, but ill fitting, garment was as follows.
First make friendly contact with someone low in the stores hierarchy. From him obtain information as to when the right size garment is in stock.
Secondly devise a method of wearing out a garment in a matter of minutes so that it will meet the criteria of “fair wear and tear”.
I had an oversize pair of trousers I wanted to change. New stock of my size had arrived in stores so I proceeded to a much favoured rapid wearing device. This was the concrete slab that supported one of the anti aircraft guns round the aerodrome. A few minutes rapid wiggling whilst seated on this gritty surface was known to be effective.
I sat and I wiggled vigorously and suddenly a voice from behind me said, “Airman, what on earth are you doing.”
“Piles Sir,” I said.
“Good God man you had better go and see the MO immediately.”
“Yes Sir,” I said and beat a hasty retreat. Happily the destructive wear was adequate.
Another way of advantageously using information about store’s inventory was to take advantage of shortages. I and many others disliked RAF issue boots. They were always heavy and often inflexibly uncomfortable. I wore size eight and when my informer let me know that stores was out of size eight boots I would go to the back of the stores, where worn out equipment was stacked ready for disposal, and retrieve a very worn out size eight pair of boots. I would destroy them a little more to make sure no one would suggest I should continue to wear them. I then presented them to stores for exchange.
“Sorry no size eight in at the moment,” was the not surprising response.
“I’ve still got a civvies pair of shoes. Can I have a chit until you get some in?” “Oh! OK but keep checking.”
A chit was a piece of paper officially permitting the bearer to do something contrary to standard Air Force rules. Chits, especially undated ones, were invaluable aids to counter the aggravations and indignities of being a lowly airman.
I did not like being in the Air Force for several reasons.
I did not like being treated as just a number. I was not and never have been a team player. Discipline was based on fear not on common decency or common sense. Rules and orders had to be obeyed even if they were obviously unreasonable or silly and at my level, three or four from the bottom, I was never party to the overall picture.
However, though critical of the organisation from my view point, I had and still have a huge respect for the air crews who flew off on a wing and a prayer. Many never to return because both their wings and their prayers let them down. Also the ground crews, who maintained and patched up aircraft that managed to limp home, did stalwart service. And the list could go on. Heroes and lesser heroes but I was not one of them. To me joining the Air Force was choosing the lesser of evils. And I decided the best way to get by was to maintain a low profile. In this on a few occasions I failed. The problem was that when it came to photographic work I was a perfectionist. This was where my skill lay. The best way, as far as I was concerned, was the only way. For example I was with a Wellington bomber squadron scheduled for night raids on Germany and German occupied territories. It is very important when running a war to be able to assess the damage you have done to the enemy. Also it was impossible to accurately assess such damage at night. So photo reconnaissance planes were sent over the next day to photograph the targets of the night sorties.
The enemy, being somewhat upset at having been bombed, was always ready the next day to shoot down any inquisitive voyeur. We lost many reconnaissance planes and crews so a new scheme was devised. Flash light photography at night. The idea was to drop a large cylinder of magnesium foil fused to explode in mid air and give out an eleven million candle power flash.
There were two problems with this. One was that if you drop something from a plane travelling at say 200 miles per hour the object you drop is also travelling at 200 miles per hour in the same direction. So, although the object is descending as it responds to gravity, it continues on its forward direction thereby remaining beneath the plane. When it ignites therefore not only does the camera in the plane photograph the area illuminated, it also photographs the flash.
The other problem was the inverse square law that states that the intensity of light from a point source diminishes by a factor of four as the distance increases by a factor of two. In other words, if the light intensity ten feet from a point source is say eight, then the intensity at twenty feet distance will be two Conversely, halve the distance from a light source, the intensity will be four times greater. These two problems simply meant that one portion of a photoflash negative would be grossly overexposed causing loss of detail and another portion grossly underexposed also with consequent loss of detail. We did the best we could when printing such negatives and no one complained. But I was not satisfied.
In the nearby town of Lichfield there was a chemist’s shop which before the war had sold photographic supplies. I went there and searched among the dusty bottles and, much to my delight, found a bottle of potassium ferricyanide. Nice orange yellow crystals with which I was quite familiar. A weak solution of potassium ferricyanide mixed with the ubiquitous hypo was known to the photographic cognoscenti as farmers reducer. An admirable solvent to lighten dark areas of overexposed negatives. My intention was to swab it onto the negative locally thereby to enhance or retrieve the detail lost in the overexposed area of the negative close to the image of the flash.
A few days later a repeat order came in to the photo section for some more prints from one negative from an earlier night sortie. This was my opportunity. I cut the five inch square negative from its roll, wet it thoroughly, locally applied my reducing solution, rewashed it, dried it and made three prints as required. The improvement in detail was very marked.
Two days later an Australian Flight Lieutenant arrived at the photo section with the first print and the improved print. He wanted to know why the first prints, and many similar before it, were not as good as this last print. I explained in detail and, much impressed, he left to explain the difference to the others in his crew and to the interpretation officer and any one else who was interested.
The anyone else, in this case, was a photographic officer. I was severely reprimanded on the grounds that using these non-issue strange chemicals was contrary to RAF procedures. Such after treatment of a negative might have resulted in loss of valuable information. People risked their lives getting this information and I should not put it in jeopardy.
A few days later the Aussie airman and his skipper came and apologised for dropping me in the shit as they put it. They had no idea I was breaking any rules. I explained to them that rules in the Air Force only became apparent after you have broken them and it was not their fault.
“Pity,” they said, “that print was a darn sight better than the others. Is there any other way of getting better images?”
I thought for a moment. It occurred to me that the several factors that determined the position of the overexposed area of the negative were constant. As a result all the negatives were overexposed to the same extent, each in the same area. Therefore a graduated neutral density filter suitably positioned in the exposing plane of the camera could significantly compensate for the local overexposure.
It sounded fine to them and their attitude was ‘OK let’s have a go’. Australians, I discovered, were very different in attitude from their British counterparts. They even seemed to treat me as an equal and completely ignored our difference in rank. Thinking of my troubles over my previous contribution to solving the problem, I demurred. They were persuasive and implied in no subtle way that I should not be a sensitive pommie. We agreed a compromise. I would have a go at making a graduated filter and we would then decide how to use it.
I fixed out a sheet of unexposed film. This gave me a sheet of clear cellulose film coated on one side with clear gelatin. I visited my chemist’s shop in Lichfield again and obtained some dyes. They were clothes dyes, not ideal but all that I could find. With my piece of film thoroughly wetted I applied the dye repeatedly and locally and when dry I had achieved a reasonably good graduated filter with no sudden transition from one density to the next.
Lichfield aerodrome and its adjacent satellite aerodromes at that time were used to train new aircrews. The trainers were experienced crews who had done a series of ops (operations) and until their next series started they trained the new aircrews. My Aussie friends were an experienced crew. I explained to the navigator how to remove a film magazine from an F24 camera and how with a screwdriver the camera pressure glass could be removed, and my filter, correctly oriented, be attached to it, and be replaced in the camera housing. The film magazine could be clipped back into place and everything would work normally.
He tried it out one night over Rhyl. It was an unofficial operation. I processed the film and made some prints. They were pleased with the results. ‘Dinkum’ or some such word described their reaction.
I let it go at that and reprimanded myself for tending to stray from my low profile position. Then they came to see me after one of their target briefings. This was not a training flight. The target was the railway marshalling yards at Hamm in Germany. Dropping eggs on Hamm as it was known was a common RAF pastime. They wanted to take flash photos and use my filter. ‘Be my guest’ was my attitude. However, because I had been on flash photography training flights before and because they were all going to be too busy over the target ‘Would I come along?’ I should have said no. Perhaps I did say no. But they were very persuasive. They were risking their necks. What was so precious about mine? ‘It’s the only one I have’ did not seem to be an appropriate response. I agreed and later, as dusk fell, we took off, rose to cruising height and cruising speed and headed for the Dutch coast.
I was not a member of the crew so I was idle whilst they were busy navigating, flying, checking instruments, calling base or other aircraft, and doing all the things bomber crews busy themselves with. Aft of the navigators area in a Wellington bomber was a light canvas sort of bed arrangement. Near one end of the bed was a flexible hose from which warm air gushed. One could lay down on the bed and hose oneself with warm air. There was nowhere from which I could see out of the plane. Probably nothing to see anyway from more than a mile high. It was very cold. Wellington aircraft did not have warm pressurised interiors. Just an aluminium mesh frame covered with doped fabric between you and a freezing void.
The time passed to the noisy rhythmic sound of the engines. The navigator came back and asked me to spend some time pumping a small lever. I pumped and pumped for some time. To what purpose I never knew. Hydraulic fluid I supposed. After a while he waved a ‘That’s OK’ at me and I went back to my canvas seat. Then the anti-aircraft firing started with crumpling like explosions sounding perilously close. I peered forward along the length of the aircraft and I could just see an occasional search-light beam illuminating a cloud. Search-light beams when viewed from the air do not look like the tall narrow columns of light as seen from the ground. In fact, when looking straight down at one it appears as an incredibly bright spot of light.
We fortunately, or perhaps skillfully, flew into a high bank of cloud where the air, although somewhat turbulent, was a lot safer and the sound of gunfire became undetectable above the engine noise.
Then the ack-ack-ack-ack-ack-ack and search-lights started again. The motion of the plane suggested the skipper was taking some evasive action. Perhaps trying to dodge search-lights. The navigator came back and said we were nearing our target and reviewed the procedure with me for releasing the flash and operating the camera shutter after the bombs. Toward the rear of the aircraft shrapnel tore through the plane’s fabric and a piece of loose material flapped endlessly in the slipstream. We steadied for a straight run onto the target. The noise changed to a different resonance as the bomb bays opened. I was not party to the intercommunication between the crew members but I knew the bombs had gone when we veered sharply to port and the Wellington turned through 270 degrees back towards the target at right angles to our original flight path. Taking into account air speed, height etc the flash was released to fall and to match our progress so that we, the illumination and the target were all suitably aligned for the camera. This operation completed amid ack-ack explosions around us we banked sharply to starboard and headed towards the coast and safety.
The navigator passed by obviously checking for damage to the aircraft. We gave each other the thumbs up sign and he continued hurriedly down the fuselage towards the tail and the turret of the rear gunner. It was some time before he returned, stopping briefly to inspect the flapping fabric. His face gave no indication to me that he had discovered the rear gunner dead from shrapnel that had gone through his turret and also damaged the plane’s tail fin or perhaps cables leading to it. The turret had also jammed in a rotated position making it impossible to release the rear gunner’s body. To maintain our true course and compensate for damage to the tail our skipper had to use more engine revs on the port engine than on the starboard. Also unknown to me, but apparent from the cockpit instruments, we were losing fuel.
We found the safety of some cloud cover and the turbulence increased as did the noise of the flapping fabric. Time passed. We were losing height. The flight engineer came back from the cockpit.
“We’re going to have to put her down,” he said.
“Where?” I asked.
“Dunno. Might just make land fall with the fuel we have left.” As dawn lightened the horizon of this June night we crossed the Lincolnshire coast. Then ‘Get your back against that bulkhead, we’re going down for a belly landing.’ I hunched up, facing the rear, as suddenly the engine noise stopped to be replaced by the whistling rushing sound as we raced through the air still accompanied by the flapping of the fabric. I remember the succession of bumps each seeming to last longer than the previous one. Then of being disoriented and then blank until almost distantly someone saying ‘Where does it hurt?’ I did not really know. It seemed to be a mixture of everything and nothing. Then gradually the world of ambulances and authorities and three cracked ribs and sundry other bumps and scratches became reality.
Everyone except the rear gunner survived although not all entirely complete in every respect. The Wellington on one of the flat Lincolnshire fields was a write-off as also, I assumed, was the film. I decided any future contributions I might make to winning the war would be non-creative and low in profile.
Strangely, scores of years later, a tent or sail or fabric flapping loosely in a wind can still remind me of that best forgotten night. It is strange how trivia remains when trauma recedes.
Rocking the Boat
When stationed at Takoradi on the Gold Coast I and some friends decided to build a yacht. We knew nothing about boat building or sailing but this did not deter us. Our basic plan was to start with a native dugout canoe. Then somehow hack a metal plate off the hull of an old wreck in the bay. This we would cut to shape and size and use as a centreboard. A bamboo pole some five inches in diameter would do for a mast. We would box in the inflated inner tubes of Hurricane tail wheels into the bow and stern of the canoe. This to give buoyancy in case we capsized and, with a little bribery and corruption, parachute silk could be used to make the sails.
Over the months construction went quite well and we ended up with a craft twenty two feet long, two feet three inches in beam, with a retractable centreboard that, when extended, reached about 18 inches below the bottom of the boat. On this structure we rigged about 300 square feet of sail.
Given even the slightest breeze it would sail around the bay at a tremendous speed. That was during the short lengths of time we could keep it upright. Invariably we capsized. Our best, albeit poor performance, was with a crew of 5 hanging almost horizontally over the water trying to balance the boat against the sideways thrust of the breeze. Our largest, 240lbs, crewman extended himself over the side supported by a rope attached to the top of the mast. Changing tack meant that all members of the crew had to dodge rapidly under the boom or round the mast and speedily hang out the opposite side before we capsized. Despite much perseverance we were rarely successful with the manoeuvre.
Our normal goal was to launch the craft, sail along the line of ore ships moored to the jetty and then circle back to shore again.
I should mention that the RAF did not include swimming trunks as part of our war time kit and this was before the days of the WAAF. The few local natives around the RAF beach saw nothing unusual about nudity so most of us capsized around the bay as nude as the days we were born.
We had discovered that the slightest difference in weight and wind force on one side of our craft or the other could significantly cause it to list dramatically. It was not until during one or our attempts to sail round the bay that, to our surprise, we observed the same phenomenon with a large vessel moored to the jetty.
We were doing well. The breeze was steady. All the crew were stretched out horizontally to counterbalance the craft as we sailed past the ships moored to the jetty.
We were so immersed in our sailing that we had not noticed that amongst the two or three ships loading bauxite was a seagoing passenger ship. Also, what we did not know, was that it was carrying an ENSA theatrical group and a large contingent of nurses. They were en route to South Africa or perhaps the Middle East or Far East. The Mediterranean at that time being controlled by the Germans.
As we nakedly sailed by, a small feminine cheer came from the ship. To do anything about our nakedness would cause us to capsize so we hung on grimly. The volume of the ribald cheer increased as more nurses and entertainers ran to the rails to see the cause of the excitement.
We decided the best thing to do was to change to another tack and sail away from the jetty. Always for us a risky manoeuvre, inevitably we capsized. This added to the entertainment and even more people lined the rails. Then we heard authoritative yells from the boat. Apparently so many people had come to see us from the starboard side of the vessel that, large though she was, she had listed towards us and on her port side lifted the gangway off the jetty.
We, much embarrassed, righted our craft, lowered the sails and paddled back to shore. The listing of the passenger ship cannot have created serious problems because we heard nothing more about our performance.
A Glitter of Gold
One day the elegant figure of a Flight Lieutenant appeared through the back door of the RAF photo section in Takoradi on the Gold Coast. At the time I was servicing one of our aerial cameras. His demeanour was not officious so it was no surprise to me when he tentatively asked if I could process a film for him. I asked if it was an RAF F24 film. These were five inches wide and about fifty feet long. I knew it was not an RAF film he was referring to but I wanted him to state clearly it was his private film and he wanted me to do him a favour as opposed to obey an order. If he had ordered me to process the film he could be at fault for the private use of government property, but I would not have been at fault because I was only obeying the orders of a superior officer. But because it was a favour requested and granted both parties were equally guilty so we both knew where we stood. In any case that was what the back door was for. At this time the sergeant in charge of the photo section was sick in hospital with a bad bout of malaria so I had the free run of the place.
The Flight Lieutenant decided to wait while I processed the film and made an enlarged print of each of the eight exposures on his 120 size film. Whilst waiting for the film and later for prints to wash and dry he asked me about the photographic process. What was in the developer for example. Not only did I tell him but I also told him the individual functions of each of the different ingredients—the developing agents, the accelerator, the preservative etc and even how the negative charge barrier on the silver halide crystal could be negated by certain substances that made no other contribution to creating an image. It transpired that, although a South African by birth, he had studied chemistry at a university in England so we now had two bonds. One was the illegal use of government property, the other was chemistry as a subject of discussion. His knowledge of chemistry was broad and extensive but almost nil about the silver halide process. Mine was narrow but in some depth only about the silver halide process. We both enjoyed the discussion. I was surprised at his interest and he was surprised that a lowly LAC knew anything more than rule of thumb about photography.
About a month later he dropped in again with another film. By this time the sergeant in charge of the photo section had recovered from his bout of malaria. He jumped up from his desk, saluted smartly and said ‘Sir’ in an enquiring tone.
“Oh I just want to see LAC Wilson. Is he available?”
“Perhaps I can help Sir,” the sergeant said.
“No, just a word,” was the rather embarrassed reply.
I was called to the office and the Flight Lieutenant said “Hello, can you spare a minute,” and, with me following, walked out of the door.
We walked round the side of the building and sat on some decaying hypo barrels. He gave me another film that I quickly pocketed. He mentioned that since last I saw him he had spent a week’s local leave with the father of a friend of his from his university days. His friend’s father was a manager of a gold mine up-country and, if I wished, he could arrange an invitation for me to visit the mine. I readily accepted and he said he would get the manager to write directly to me and send a pass to travel on the railway that ran from the mine to Takoradi harbour.
We parted and I returned to the photo section where the sergeant, full of curiosity, wanted to know what was going on.
“Oh nothing,” I said, “We were just talking about the silver halide process.”
“The what?” he said. I explained that films were coated with silver halide crystals.
“There ain’t no crystals on any film here,” he said, “And in any case it is against regulations for an airman to fraternise with an officer.”
“I wasn’t,” I said, “He was fraternising with me. I was standing to attention the whole time.” That rather confused him.
“Well don’t do it again. All communications to the photo section come through me. Even if they are stupid I’ve got to know.” And that was how it was left until I received an invitation to spend four days up-country at a gold mine. The letter was addressed to Flt Lieutenant Wilson, Room 6 Ashimoto College, RAF Station Takoradi. The address was correct but not the title.
Because I was introduced by my Flight Lieutenant from South Africa my host had assumed I also was a commissioned officer in the RAF. I had no means of correcting the mistake until I met him, so a few days later I rode a train up-country. This was a steam railway line designed to carry bauxite to the ore ships that lined Takoradi’s jetty. Bauxite being the ore from which aluminium was obtained to support the war effort. From this line there was a spur that went to the gold mine. So in due course I reached the hill country and the site of the mine.
The manager met me and took me to his comfortable colonial style home. Airy rooms with fans in the ceilings. Chunky wooden furniture locally made from African hardwoods such as mahogany and others I did not recognise. A large verandah and servants to cook and ply us with a very welcome gin and tonic before we sat down to the evening meal. An egg curry with dozens of small side dishes to titillate the pallet. Peanuts in several forms. Chutneys made from a range of local fruits. Baked yams. Fresh fruit and coffee with a glass of brandy. It was incomparably better than the airmen’s mess that I had survived for the past eighteen months. There was one large snag. My host, although polite, was progressively distancing himself from any mutual friendly relationship. It came as a surprise to him that I was not an RAF officer. He enquired as to which school had educated me and was unimpressed with Herstmonceux village church school as a reply. He had been to Rugby and Oxford. No I had never played rugby. He tentatively mentioned some London clubs, most of which I had never heard of. I tried to turn the conversation round to gold mining and how his mine operated. Although he responded briefly it was clear I was a disappointment to him. I think he was homesick. He considered himself to be, or was, a member of the British upper class and he had mistakenly expected a fellow expatriate with whom he could discuss his university days and gay London parties, debutantes and a past, and hopefully future, life as far removed from the so-called White Man’s Grave that he now occupied. Clearly it was going to be a difficult few days.
I later discovered that normally his house and bed also accommodated a charming Ashanti lady named Ahinma and, for reasons I did not understand, she had been moved out to other temporary accommodation for the period of my visit. Perhaps he felt that more public knowledge of his amorous alliance might somehow tarnish his old school tie. Or perhaps he was influenced by the South African regime where such an alliance was a criminal offence. His previous guest had been my South African Flight Lieutenant with an interest in photographic chemistry.
The next day I was briefly shown round the mine. I was not invited to go down the shaft. I was shown where the gold containing ore was crushed to a powder, then put in vats of highly toxic chemicals such as prussic acid or some cyanic liquid. Eventually pure gold was extracted and stored for shipment and sale in the form of gold blocks. Gold nuggets were never found. It was not that sort of a mine, although in the past when the local natives had mined gold, there had been sites where nuggets occurred.
By now two days had passed and for the next two he was going to be busy at work and, as he put it, I was free to relax around the house and compound and he would join me each day for dinner. I was in no position to argue or protest. I felt like an unwelcome guest and the next train out was in two days time.
The next day I was dawdling on the verandah over my breakfast of papaya with a squeeze of fresh lime juice, toast, marmalade and coffee when I noticed a lady busying herself with clothes in the manager’s bedroom. I thought she was probably a servant but I said good morning. I would have been glad to talk to anyone who had not been to a public school. She replied, not in the pidgin English I expected, but in normal English with only a very occasional relapse into the lingua franca commonly used as a primitive language for communication between the white man and the numerous different native races and tongues.
The houseboy came in, topped up my coffee and asked the lady if she would like one. She said she would and indicated she would take it in the bedroom. Clearly she was not one of the servants. I was intrigued and suggested she join me on the verandah. She hesitated then nodded agreement to the houseboy and sat down at my table. It was then that I discovered that she normally lived there. Her name was Ahinma and she was less than pleased at being temporarily evicted twice in the last month because of RAF visitors. I assured her I was not actually taking her place. This she thought was amusing and shared the joke with the houseboy who roared with laughter and spilt the coffee in the process. The ice was broken. We happily chatted and the houseboy went to tell the cook who would tell the gardener that I had not ousted Ahinma from her position in the bedroom. West Africans love a joke, especially if it is somewhat bawdy and preferably about, or at the expense of, a white man.
By the end of my breakfast we had mutually decided that the mine manager had for the next two days deserted us both, so I accepted her invitation to show me the village nearby and introduce me to her family.
She led me along a well trodden path through the bush to the village. She strode ahead, swathed in a colourful bolt of cloth. Walking with that upright stance common to most African ladies that do not wear high heels and have spent much of their youth balancing things on their heads. The village was like most African villages. A dirt road fringed with small houses most of which had corrugated iron roofs. Many had open thatched add-on extensions that formed their centres of activity. Ahinma was obviously well known and, judging by the smiles, equally well liked. I was introduced to several people but my knowledge of the Ashanti language was not up to carrying on a conversation so I could not determine if they were friends or relatives. The community seemed to be so busy and industrious that distinctions between family, friends and neighbours became insignificant. Perhaps I was deluding myself with the charm of the scene. Perhaps when the tom-toms started in the night witch doctors cast spells, neighbours feuded over trivia and behaved like all other tribes of homo sapiens. But without the benefit of hindsight or foresight I was charmed with the scene as I saw it.
We stopped our social tour to have a lunch of fruit and nuts washed down with a can of Congo Ale. This was local brew that according to the label was brewed from pure malt and hops. Neither of which grew in West Africa.
After a conversation about the village Ahinma started to ask me about the RAF and particularly about where the huge number of planes went to after they were assembled in Takoradi and did I go with them or fly them to Cairo. Clearly she knew where they went to because she mentioned Cairo. I did not answer her and she went on to explain that she had relatives in Sekondi near Takoradi and they told her about the RAF and how they flew all the way to Egypt. This was not a subject I should discuss. I changed it back to gold mining and she told me how her ancestors had mined gold in this area before the white man came here. Apparently, as she put it, they used their enemies to dig out the veins of gold. It seemed that enemy was a euphemism for slave and these poor souls were lowered down holes in the ground by a rope tied to their ankles. This image of the past contrasted sharply with the pleasant village scene that surrounded us.During these last two days before my return I chatted with Ahinma on three or four occasions and each time she reiterated that I should visit her family in Sekondi near the RAF station. I politely thanked her and, by the time I had returned from my visit, I had forgotten all about it.
Then about a month later our ‘boy’, who made the beds and generally cleaned up our room, gave me a message.
“From your friend Ahinma,” as he put it. At first I did not comprehend who he was referring to, Ahinma being a common name in Ashanti.
But then he said “Ahinma at Gold Mine,” and I knew who he meant.
“What does she want,” I asked.
“You tell me when you go Sekondi and she meet you,” he said.
“Oh,” I said “I’m busy. I’ll let you know.”
I had no desire to become involved with my host’s mistress who seemed strangely interested in RAF aircraft movements.
A few days later when I was not on duty I went for a swim in the bay and then, as I had often done before, wandered along the beach in the direction of Sekondi which was some two miles away. The beach in this part of West Africa was a minor highway between coastal villages. Inland was swamp areas of mosquito ridden bush. There was one road between Takoradi and Accra that ran parallel to the coast through the swamps. It had been built at great cost of landfill and lives and was the motor transport route between coastal towns but much of the village to village communication was on foot along the shore line with people carrying bananas and other fruit and little naked children playing in and out of the water. Also there was usually a slight breeze blowing off the water that kept the mosquitoes away.
I was about to turn back to camp, then about a mile distant, when a voice said “Hello” and there was Ahinma with a man she introduced as her relative. He was well dressed in a shirt and beige shorts. The shorts had that freshly put on appearance with creases resulting from careful ironing still showing. We sat down on some nearby rocks and she then explained her interest in our aircraft movements. It seemed that her family had some gold and because the gold mines and all mining rights were now in the hands of the British Colonial powers that ran the Gold Coast, she could not sell the gold locally because it was illegal to own it and for the same reason she could never get a good price selling it around there privately. I asked if it was stolen from the gold mine.
“No! No!” she said “All the gold in the mine is in the rocks. These are small pieces of gold.”
Certainly the mine manager had said the ore they mined had to be crushed and processed to obtain the gold.
“How big are they?” I asked.
“Like a peanut shell,” she said. “Nugget. That’s it.” Do you know someone who takes airplanes to Egypt who could sell it for us? Get good price?”
I explained that I was not a pilot who flew planes to Cairo and I did not have a close connection with anyone who did.
They seemed disappointed and as I started to leave Ahinma’s companion whose name was Kofi said, “Your steward boy, Jimmy, he a friend of mine. If you know someone who sell our gold you tell Jimmy you want to see me.”
Having no intention of doing anything of the sort I nodded agreement, said goodbye and headed back for camp.
That I thought was the end of the matter until I was called to fit an F24 camera in a DC3 Dakota and was told that they needed photographs of all the airfields and landing grounds up the route. This was the route the assembled Blenheims, Hurricanes, Beauforts and Beaufighters took to get from Takoradi to Cairo and Alexandria in Egypt. There to support General Alexander and later Montgomery in their battles against Rommel to control North Africa. Not only was I to fit the camera etc but it seemed I was also going along to do the work. This was good news for me. A nice change from Takoradi. A different part of Africa to see.
A few mornings later I was packing my bag prior to leaving and chatting to some of the Met boys in our room. (Met being meteorological i.e. weather forecasters). Jimmy our steward boy was there and he asked if I was leaving for good.
“No,” I said. “I’ll be back in a week or so.”
Tom here will pay my share of your wages whilst I’m away.” Tom nodded assent and said “You should get to Cairo and back in 3 weeks.”
Jimmy looked thoughtful and said “When you go?”
“Tomorrow morning,” I said.
The next morning just as I was about to catch the transport to the airfield Jimmy appeared and thrust a small package into my hand and said “Ahinma say you try sell this one.” At a fast pace he disappeared round the corner as I hopped on the transport. Eventually I found the opportunity to inspect the packet. It contained an irregularly shaped lump of metal about the size of a peanut shell. It felt about as heavy as lead and like lead I could make an impression on it with my thumbnail. It was not sparkling and shiny but it was warm yellow in colour. With it in my pocket I was on my way to Egypt.
The route, as we called it, was east across tropical Africa to Lagos in Nigeria. Then northeast to Kaduna and then on to Kano and Maidugeri in the north of Nigeria at the southern border of the Sahara desert bordering Lake Chad. From there to Ndjamena in Chad and on east to the Sudan, refuelling at El Fasher and El Obeid eventually to reach Khartoum. From Khartoum we flew north to pick up the Nile at what is now called Lake Nasser and on to Cairo and Alexandria.
The trip was uneventful and unfortunately I had little opportunity to do more than pass through or over the places I would have very much liked to explore. The statistical rainfall for many of the areas we flew over was 3 or 4 inches per year. However the 3 or 4 inches were not uniformly spread and I was in Geneina when a brief shower occurred one afternoon. There were children up to 7 or 8 years old who had never seen rain before. They ran around the streets laughing with their heads thrown back and their mouths open to catch raindrops. To them it was as miraculous as candies falling from the sky would be to a child in England.
Rainfall in some parts was so rare that sunbaked mud walled houses were not only practical but in some cases the mud surface of walls were carved with intricate designs. The craftsman having no more fear that his skilled work would be washed away than would a stone mason carving gargoyles for Salisbury Cathedral.
At the RAF station near Alexandria I expedited the processing and printing of the photographs and then enquired from fellow airmen, who had been in Alex, as they called it, long enough to know their way around town, where were the markets that dealt in gold. Unfortunately their knowledge seemed to be limited to the location of bars frequented by prostitutes. So I made my own way and eventually located a market area where craftsmen were producing filigree brooches and other ornaments.
I went into a shop, if such it could be called, and was greeted by a tall thin man in Arab garb who addressed me in Arabic. I said “Good morning” and he immediately replied in quite good English. I said I was interested in buying some gold. He got out gold bracelets, gold pendants and necklaces and held each one out enticingly.
“No,” I said, “I just want to buy some gold.” It was my plan to find out how much I would have to pay for gold and thereby get a feel for how much to charge for Ahinma’s nugget. But I got nowhere with him. He did not sell gold, he only made things from gold.
“So where do you get your gold from?” I asked.
He reverted to Arabic. I was getting nowhere so I delved into my pocket and produced the gold nugget. He looked both surprised and interested. He waved to a colleague, an older bespectacled man with a lined face and whiskery grey beard. They inspected the nugget. They weighed it on scales that looked as if they had come from a museum. They conducted some chemical tests with drops of liquid and something that looked like mercury.
They nodded and muttered between themselves, then looked up and said, “Where this come from?”
“I’m selling it for a friend. It’s been in the family for years,” I replied.
He nodded not believing a word of it but recognising that it was a fruitless line of enquiry. Obviously he was now going to assume it was stolen and I had no real idea if it was stolen or not. But I was feeling progressively more and more uncomfortable about the whole business. Why would Ahinma trust me to sell it for her. Was it real gold? Was it pure gold? If it was pure gold and valuable she probably would only trust me with it if she could afford to lose it. In other words she must have significantly more if this was just a sample she could afford to lose. What was I getting into? I decided my best policy was to get out of the business as soon as possible.
“How much?” I said.
He looked at me quizzically and offered some numbers in Aekers.
“No. English pounds,” I said. “30 pounds English,” he replied.
I thought, if he is offering £30, and assumes it is stolen, it is probably worth £300, so I said £400 to see what would happen. He handed me back the nugget and spread his palms suggesting we were not even on the same planet. I returned the nugget to my pocket and turned to leave.
He waited until I had made two positive steps towards the street and said, “Perhaps we look at it again.”
Now we had at least established there was a possibility of a deal. He and his colleague looked at it again. Not, I thought, to gain more information but just as a ploy in the negotiations.“Perhaps £50,” he said.
“At least £350,” I said. We went through the rejection process again, he raising the offer, me reducing the price. We eventually settled for £250 sterling. If I would like to leave the nugget with him he would give me a receipt and by tomorrow he would be able to get the money in sterling.
“Thank you, but no,” I said. “You get the money tomorrow and I will bring you the gold.” I started to leave.
He said, “I only have £225 in sterling. You can have that now or wait until tomorrow for the £250.”
I did not believe him but I settled for the £225 which in those days seemed to me a lot of money and I headed back for camp not really knowing how many laws I had broken, if any, and whose laws applied to me in wartime.
Eventually I flight hopped back to the Gold Coast to be greeted by a smiling Jimmy, the steward boy, with a “You have good trip.”
“Trip OK,” I replied.
The next day he said, “Kofi ask if you have good trip and small dash for him.”
Small dash is West African for a tip or bribe. I wrote £225 on a piece of paper and said, “you give this to Kofi.” The next day Jimmy came back with the message.
“Kofi thank you for £220 small dash you give to me for Kofi”.
So that was it. I was to get £5 for my efforts. Perhaps I had grossly undersold the nugget. I could not tell but £5 seemed unreasonable so I wrapped up £200 for Kofi and gave this to Jimmy and pocketed the £25.
I never saw Kofi and Ahinma again and Jimmy never mentioned them to me, although he had plenty of opportunities to do so before I returned to England.
Missing the Boat Home
I had been based in Takoradi on the Gold Coast for about one and a half years. Here fighter aircraft were assembled from crated kits that arrived by sea. After assembly, and being fitted with overload fuel tanks to increase their range, they were flown from landing ground to landing ground. First northeast through Nigeria, then east along the length of the southern border of the Sahara Desert and eventually, via Khartoum, north to Cairo. It was said to be an easy run for navigators because all they had to do was follow the line of crashed aircraft all the way to the Nile. This was a gross exaggeration based on a small element of truth.
The other main function of the RAF at Takoradi was to monitor shipping and chase enemy submarines as they passed through or near the Bight of Benin en route to or from the Far East or South Africa in one direction, or Europe and the USA in the other direction. Mainly Lockheed Hudson aircraft were used for this purpose. They were armed with depth charges but it was mostly whales mistaken for U boats that were destroyed.
The RAF at Takoradi had taken over the Ashimoto College, adjacent to the aerodrome. This consisted of numerous small classrooms each with a large blackboard. These rooms were used as dormitories for airmen. About eight to a room. Each with his own mosquito net and each room with its own native ‘boy’ whose job it was to make up the beds and keep the place clean. Each of us contributed one shilling and sixpence per fortnight to pay for these services. Our pay at that time was about three shillings and sixpence per day.
There was, of course, the usual NAFFI canteen, a cinema, a section of beach near by, a free allocation of cigarettes for those who smoked, a hospital to visit when attacked by the inevitable bouts of malaria and dysentery, a military graveyard for those that succumbed to the more rare, but more potent yellow fever, blackwater fever or some fatal accident. It was, in fact, designed to encourage no one to leave camp or in any way involve themselves in Africa, the black continent. It had exactly the opposite effect on me. Any free moment I had I would wander off into the bush to observe the local fauna and flora, all of which were totally new and entirely fascinating to me.
I managed to learn a little Ashanti from our ‘boy’. Much to his amusement I learned from him to sing an Ashanti song called Kokoman. He never translated it properly for me and I suspect his uncontrolled mirth when I sang it was due to the vulgarity of the meaning that he considered hilariously inappropriate from a white man. I sometimes now sing it to my young grandchildren who are under the impression it is an Ashanti nursery rhyme—perhaps it is.
On several occasions I had paddled a native dugout canoe through to the upper reaches of the Praha River. I had taken the so called ‘mammy wagons’ along the coast road through various towns and settlements. The ‘mammy wagons’ were battered old pick-up trucks with a few wooden forms screwed to the floor and most of the cab removed. These plied their trade along the road picking up and dropping off people with large bundles, with goats, with children and babies. On more than one occasion a nursing mother sitting beside me would jokingly offer me a large breast. This was considered a great joke by all. The West Africans loved a joke and the best jokes of all were at the expense of strange white men.
This was during the last days of the British Empire so traditionally white men were more of the authoritative district commissioner type who put on a dress suit in the bush whilst they ate their camp fire dinners. So it was both intriguing and great fun for the natives to poke fun at this new type of white man who was not wrapped in the aura of the Union Jack and never referred to the great chief the King of England.
On this day I was called into the orderly room and informed that I was being posted back to Blighty (England).
I had slightly mixed feelings about this. Of course I looked forward to seeing my family again but I was also conscious that there was a lot more to West Africa than I had been permitted to see. However philosophically I packed my kit, signed off for all the responsibilities that I had acquired and was told to wait in camp until the boat arrived. In other words, hang around my room and the NAFFI canteen until I was called.
After three days of waiting around I asked Harry, a clerk in the Orderly Room, if there was any news of my boat arriving. He checked the latest shipping data and that evening told me the ETA was six days time but things could change if the ship did not stop at both Bathurst and Freetown. I estimated that even if it did not stop en route I had at least two days clear and I was bored with hanging around this bit of transplanted England whilst Africa called.
The next day I left camp, took a ‘mammy wagon’ to where the coast road crossed the Praha River. I had decided that instead of going up stream as I had before, I would paddle down stream towards the sea where the mangrove trees and a variety of animal and insect life bridged the gap between fresh water and salt water.
At the road and river junction I negotiated the rental of a dugout canoe. It was about twenty feet long and two feet wide. I had long since acquired the art of paddling a dugout canoe. The important thing is to sit in the rear end, which slightly raises the bows if such they can be called. The canoe then responds readily to every stroke or slight deflection of the paddle.The weather, as ever, was hot and sultry. The current carried me smoothly down stream towards the sea. After about one hour the river acquired multiple branches as it formed a delta. These branches turned into tunnels overhung with mangrove trees. Knowing that to get back all I had to do was paddle up stream because any one would lead back to the river. I took little note of the twists and turns, main streams or branches, through which I travelled.
I was fascinated with the area. The flora was almost exclusively mangrove but the wild life was prolific and varied. On mud banks crabs, each with one claw larger than the other, seemed to compete for territory. Lung fish also appeared on the surface out of muddy dens. A brilliantly coloured lizard, a skink I believe, scurried around a tree trunk and a vast range of insects contributed to an incessant hum. I then arrived in a mangrove ringed pool about thirty five feet in diameter. The shallow waters here were home to uncountable numbers of small fry and small crustaceans. Some almost transparent and others flicked across the pool like schools of silver darts.
I was fascinated, time went by, the shadows started to lengthen and I reminded myself that the sun sets at 6 pm on the equator.
It was then that I discovered my error. I had drifted or paddled into tidal water and the tide had gone out. The myriad branches of the Praha River down which I had paddled were mere muddy trickles. I was trapped in a pool in a tropical swamp, night was coming and I had no idea what sort of creatures claimed this as their territory.
I reviewed the alternatives. There were none. I had to stay in this pool until two things coincided. The tide must be in at the same time as the sun is in the sky.
Fear, as much as anything, is a product of the unknown. Combine this with darkness which removes the sensory perception of sight on which we rely so much, then a frightening situation is created. I was in one and despite all my efforts at applying reason and logic I was vulnerable to it.
The sun had disappeared with its normal tropical suddenness and darkness beneath the overhanging mangrove trees was absolute. I had worked in dark rooms for so many years that my eyes rapidly adjusted to low light levels. But this was total blackness. I looked upwards hoping to see some slight glimmer of the night sky. But nothing.
The happy hum of insects I had enjoyed during the day now seemed to become menacing. The slap of ripples under the canoe’s bows was no longer reassuring. It was caused by some living creature of the night dominating its lagoon. I attempted to paddle the canoe gently to the middle of the pool free of the mud banks and overhanging branches but I had no reference point to guide me. The canoe would suddenly bump into something in the dark. Or was it something bumping into the canoe? Then drift into overhanging leaves that flicked my face. Or was it something else? I could not tell.
The noises also altered. There were sudden plopping noises and in addition to the background insect hum there was the occasional sound of wings. Leathery ones I assumed. Little squeals and grunts occasionally reached my ears now attuned to hear the worst.
It was one of the longest nights I have ever experienced. Sleep was not a part of it and as dawn began to break I discovered that during the night the tide had both come in and gone out again. I had to wait until the afternoon before the water rose sufficiently for me to paddle up stream and back to what I now felt was safety. In retrospect I do not believe I was in any danger. But we do not live in hindsight, we live in the present through fears of the future. Emotion may be in conflict with logic. In this case emotion won.
I arrived back in camp to discover that the boat on which I was scheduled to return to England, was, as I expected, several days away. What I had not expected was that the Air Force, in their wisdom, had rescheduled me on a different boat that had called in from Cape Town and left yesterday. I had missed the boat back to Blighty.
Fortunately I had been on the station long enough to have photographed most of the important people. All wearing a flying jacket. It was a little private enterprise I ran with the aid of an old flying jacket from stores. There must be innumerable family albums and mantle pieces around the country with pictures of airmen in this old flying jacket. Such pictures are in conflict with their long since discarded RAF identity forms that said cook, or clerk, or armourer or aircraftsman or others of the thousands that never got off the ground whilst supporting the heroic few who were issued with flying jackets.
Anyway due to gratitude for my ego boosting photographic images my absence went unrecorded and I caught the next boat home still regretting how little of the real Africa I had experienced.
Ours is Not to Reason Why
It was Tom, the engine maintenance fitter, in the next bed, who woke me. He was muttering something about it not being one of ours. As I rubbed the sleep from under my eyelids he explained that the plane he heard, low overhead, was not one of ours. He could identify all our aircraft by their engine noise so I took his word for it. I was however unconcerned. It had either gone away or landed. The important thing from my viewpoint was that it had neither dropped bombs on us nor indulged in any other malicious practice normally associated with “Jerries” unsocial visits.
By this time both I and the RAF had been in the war for about two years. More than long enough for me, then a lowly L.A.C. Photographer, to know how best to alleviate the indignities imposed on those who, like me, were next to the bottom in the RAF hierarchy.
I put on enough clothes to approximate being “properly dressed”, quickly made my bed, tidied my bed space, picked up my shaving and toilet kit and headed for my haven of refuge—the dark room in the photo section. This photographic unit like all others was equipped with a dark room having large processing sinks, hot and cold running water and a lavatory. Also, being a dark room, it was quite legitimate to lock the door on the inside thereby excluding any intruders or officials whilst photographers were handling light sensitive materials. In other words it was the perfect place to wash, shave and generally freshen up for the day, rather than join in a queue at communal washrooms and lavatories.
On this occasion my daily routine was interrupted by the ringing of the office phone.
Tieless, but otherwise complete, I answered it with a brisk “Photo Section”.
“Ah!” said a voice redolent with authority. “Who is that?”
“LAC Wilson,” I said adding a ‘Sir’ just to play safe.
“Are you in charge?”
“Yes Sir. At this time.”
“Right. Report to me, Squadron Leader Ridell, immediately in the control tower.”
“Yes Sir,” I said. I finished knotting my tie, rubbed dust off my shoes on the backs of my trouser legs, hoped he would not notice that I was wearing shoes rather than issue boots, picked up the photo section bike and peddled round the perimeter track to the end of the main runway and the control tower.
It was then that I noticed the cause of Tom’s strange engine noise. Strange it was indeed. It was an American US Air Force plane poised before the control tower on one wheel beneath each wing and another under its nose. All our Wimpys* (Wellington bombers) and other RAF aircraft had a wheel under each wing and another under the tail. This stranger also had a menacing array of guns sticking out of its rounded nose. Eight, I think there were. And impressively large they looked.
I parked my bike round the back of the building in a place I judged was probably not infringing any regulation. It paid to be careful about such things because it seemed to me one only found out about RAF regulations and conventions by infringing them.
A sergeant at the entrance to the Control Tower was expecting me and I was taken to a de-briefing room occupied by a selection of senior officers including Squadron Leader Ridell and three US Airmen looking defiantly relaxed as only American fliers can when faced with the stiff upper lips of RAF officialdom.
Somebody said ‘here’s the photographer’ and one of the US Airmen disentangled his legs and produced a cassette of 16mm cinefilm.
“Hey bud,” he said. “Can you process this? We been in action an wanna see the results.”
I inspected the cassette. It was made by the Fairchild Camera Co. and judging by the knobs and screws etc it appeared to be designed to be reloadable or at least unloadable.“Think you can process this, reload the cassette and camera and get us going again to win this war?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I demurred. “Have you got an instruction manual?” I was tempted to say a manual for winning the war but instead said ‘for the equipment’.
“Yea. Thought you might ask.” And he handed me some loose copies of a few pages from a manual from a bag beside his chair.
“Right,” said the Squadron Leader. “Proceed and report back as soon as possible.”
I pedalled back to the Photo Section and reviewed the situation. The few pages of the manual only covered the loading of a cassette into the camera. However unloading the film would be no problem but reloading might be difficult because, not knowing the sensitivity of the film, I had to work in total darkness. Safe lights being safe for films not sensitive to their particular light. However, when I had the cassette open in the dark I could feel that about one quarter of the roll of film was on the take up spool and approximately three quarters remained on the feed spool. This simplified the problem. I cut the film, removed and processed the exposed film, replaced the take-up spool, connected the unexposed film through the gate, making sure there was a loop at each side then onto the replaced spool and closed the cassette.
All this took about one hour and coincided with a phone call from the control tower asking for progress.
“I’m on my way Sir,” I replied.
They were all sitting around drinking coffee whilst I loaded the film into a projector and ran through the few yards of film for them. There were some shots of a railway goods yard and then cumulus clouds passing by against a clear sky. Then suddenly the film exploded to a pure white screen, then back to sky and clouds. It was in fact a shot of the biggest conflagration man has ever seen. It was a shot of the sun taken as the plane banked round to return to base or to evade attack. Then the film ended.
After a tactful silence chatter started and I returned the now reloaded cassette to the American airman.
“Hey I don’t want it Bud. You reload the camera. You got those instructions?”
Dutifully, but with some slight trepidation, I left for what I then knew to be a Mitchell fighter bomber. A ‘B’ something or other. B17 or was it B22*. I cannot remember.
I managed to get into the plane and find the Fairchild Camera. In fact it was fairly obvious where the cassette should go because the door on the side of the camera was left open. I then studied the few pages that referred to loading and operating the camera. It was written in an extraordinary manner. For example, ‘To open the camera door hold the knob between the forefinger and thumb of the right hand and turn in an anticlockwise rotation.’ It childishly instructed one what to do, but gave no indication as to any of the underlying principles.I went through the routine to where it said ‘press the button to run off the fogged leader film’. I pressed it. There was a deafening rattle of gunfire. The plane vibrated madly and the corner of the control tower disintegrated into a pile of rubble.
It would be an understatement to say this caused a certain amount of chaos. The fire truck and ambulance (known as the ‘blood wagon’) arrived assuming we were under attack. Communications were asking other communications why radar had not picked up whatever had caused the attack. The top brass appeared from the control tower looking somewhat dishevelled and sprinkled with plaster and brick dust and the American airman, who had given me the cassette, was asking whose side I was on.
As I recovered from the shock of these rapidly occurring events it dawned on me what had happened. The camera was linked electrically to the guns so that when they are fired the camera records the event and hopefully the destruction of the enemy target. It seemed that somehow the converse was true and me innocently operating the camera had fired the guns.Eventually the dust literally and metaphorically settled. Threat of a court martial was dropped because fortunately I had retained the instruction sheets that exonerated me from all blame and, by the way they were written, from having any intelligence.
Many years later my son (Ian), attending school on the Isle of Wight, had occasion to recount this story of me meeting my first American. He and his fellow students were talking about the follies and shortcomings of their parents and, by a strange coincidence another boy said his dad tells about the same event when he was a Commanding Officer in the RAF. I hope those three Americans also survived the war. The last I saw of them they were shaking their heads in disbelief.
A Confession of Cowardice
It was dark with a cold November drizzle falling from lowering clouds occasionally lit by a fruitlessly probing search light. The distant drone of enemy bombers came from the north in the direction of the destination of the train I was about to board. It was all routine. I had my travel vouchers. I was in the process of being transferred from one RAF station to another.
I was travelling alone but the small station was crowded with other military personnel faintly visible under the blacked out platform lights. They were mainly groups of Army men with their kit bags and gas masks.
There was some slight competitiveness verging on animosity between the Army and the RAF. It was rumoured that, because the RAF had need of a high percentage of technicians, conscripts were sorted into groups and the most intelligent ones went to the RAF and the rest went to the Army as canon fodder. The Army naturally resented this slur on their intelligence and referred to the RAF as ‘Brylcreem Boys.’ This was a name given to them as a result of an advertisement by a hair product manufacturer who used a handsome, wavy haired, airman in their advertisements. The RAF referred to the Army as brown jobs because the colour of their uniform matched the colour of the dirt they supposedly dug to make trenches to hide in. It was all very petty. The rivalry rarely got out of control, especially in areas where the Army and the RAF had a common enemy, the US military personnel, who, by virtue of being overpaid, oversexed and over here, usually ‘got the girls’. Nevertheless an undercurrent of rivalry was always present.
A steam train eventually puffed to a halt in the station. Kit bags were stowed on roof racks above the seats in the small one door compartments. I packed myself into one with a group of soldiers, some obviously travelling together. I sat down as unobtrusively as possible and ignored a joking reference to ‘Brylcreem Boys’.
As the train chugged through the night, stopping at each station, a few soldiers got off, but the bulk of them in my compartment remained seated or occasionally got up to stretch their legs or go to the lavatory at the end of the carriage.
As the train came to a stop at one of the larger stations they pulled down their kit bags and disembarked leaving me alone in the compartment. As I sat back and the train slowly started to move again, I noticed that, on the opposite roof rack they had left one of their kit bags. In a spontaneous fit of generosity I pulled down the window, grabbed the ‘forgotten’ bag and hurled it onto the fast receding platform.
I sat back feeling like a boy scout who had done his good deed for the day when, to my horror, the owner of the kit bag returned from the lavatory and sat opposite me beneath the rack that should have held his property and was now glaringly empty.
To make matters worse this particular brown job was very large and looked to be hardly more than two generations removed from a Neanderthal. I shrunk into the corner. Should I confess? Should I stay there and pretend I knew nothing about it? Should I suggest the other soldiers had taken it by mistake? An unlikely ploy. No one carts around two kitbags by mistake.
I decided on none of these. I got out at the next stop and waited two hours for the next train.