(This page is dedicated to stories and reminiscences of Service life)
1) 'A Blistering Tale'
2) 'Tropical Island Holiday'?
3) 'A Christmas Island Story'
4) 'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 1)
5) 'Life As A Service Brat' (Part 1)
6) 'Memories of Akrotiri'
7) '502 Sqn. Stornoway 1944 - 45'
8) 'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 2)
9) 'Pilgrimage To RAF Charterhall'
10) 'Remembering Lewis and Sgt.T. Lyke'
11) 'How I Learnt To Fly'
12) 'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 3)
13) 'RAF Stornoway - Where's That?'
14) 'Memories of RAF Aird Uig'
15) 'Loss of Halifax HR686 - The Real Story'
16) 'How An 'Erk' Helped Make The Fortune of Abu Dhabi'
17) 'Armed and (Not So) Dangerous"
'A Blistering Tale'
(Submitted by Ian Denny)
In 1992, I was stationed at RAF Hereford and had the honour to be team leader of that years party from Hereford taking part in the annual Nijmegan march. Not wanting to take all the credit for recounting our experiences, I refer the reader to the following account, written by Cpl. Rick Morgan, shortly after the event:-
Most people will have at least heard of the 'Nijmegan' international marches in Holland, which take place annually in July. The marches cover a 4 day period and cover 100 miles, split into 25 miles per day. For those who want to know what it's like to participate, read on.
The concept of Nijmegan, according to our illustrious team leader Flt. Lt. Ian Denny, was thus; depart RAF Hereford in luxury transport, take smooth luxury ferry across small pond, sustain an insignificant drive in said luxury transport through picturesque Holland and encamp at luxury accommodation. Enjoy good food amongst pleasant surroundings, followed by a barely noticeable few days strolling over beautiful flat terrain. Leave luxury accommodation aboard luxury transport and re-cross pond on luxury ferry. Return to RAF Hereford, festooned with medals, to a heroes welcome. 'Sounds good eh? Sign on the dotted line Corp, you won't regret it. Basically a free holiday, people queuing to go, I can just squeeze you in. Well done.....' and he's out the door like a shot.
I became aware of the accuracy of Ian Denny's words as he and the others huddled into a knackered Transit van, with Cpl. Andy Gale at the wheel. All set, we proceeded to hurtle down Britain's motorways with a trailer barely managing to stay with us, this containing our webbing, mess tins, first-aid kit and approx. 25 years worth of ballroom attire for the ladies. The trailer managed to remain attached despite Andy's best efforts, and to everyone's relief, we eventually boarded the ferry.
The 4 hour crossing aboard the roll-on, roll-off, roll all over the place ferry allowed most of us some sleep. Upon arrival in Belgium, Sgt. Chris Francis took control of the wagon, whilst simultaneously losing control of his senses and charging towards Holland at Warp Factor 10! Chris inspired us all with his patriotism by driving on the left for the most part, arriving so early that he took us on an unscheduled trip to Amsterdam. We then headed south towards the city of Nijmegan. After depositing the ladies and their wardrobe at a nearby camp (we had seperate accommodation throughout our stay), we inexplicably failed to locate the men's luxury accommodation and instead opted for the porta-cabin provided, set in some woods with all conveniences nature intended. This was to be our home for the duration and, after a shower and a rest, we felt ready for what may lay ahead.
Nijmegan was in festive mode when we arrived. This festival occupies 2 weeks and the aim is to enjoy oneself. Live music on every street caters for all tastes and created an incredible atmosphere, with the scorching weather adding to the enjoyment. We had a few days prior to the 4 day event, so we put our party heads on and enjoyed the occasion. Sgt. (W) Di Lockert was often seen clutching a beer in one hand and a bag of sweets in the other, Sgt. (W) Sally Butters was seen with a beer in one hand and managed to solve the dilemma of what to do with the other hand by putting a beer in that as well. Of the remaining ladies, Cpl. Sue Tunks and SACs Lea Mitchell and Emma Glazebrook formed a near inseparable trio in numerous drinking holes singing and drinking, a rare feat to accomplish at the same time! SAC Ted Nugent apparently had his buttocks surgically grafted to a bar stool. The rest of us took in the atmosphere, the Heineken and those funny little sausages made from dead donkey or something, but before you knew it, the fun was over and the work began.
Day 1 - One rises early for the marches, one was told. One doesn't like to get out of bed until one has woken up one counters. One will get up at the crack of sparrows, one was ordered. Thus, before the sun had risen we were dressed, fed and assembled, along with thousands of other teams, for the first 25 mile leg of the event. Each day takes a different route through towns and countryside and the locals line the route giving words of encouragement, which helps you forget the sore feet.
The day had barely begun when ominous black clouds and distant rumbling indicated a thunderstorm ahead. Chris Francis assured us that it was heading away from us and thus, two minutes later, everyone was duly soaked to the skin. Thoughts of blisters instantly diminished, replaced by worries of trenchfoot! However, the good weather returned and onwards we trudged, squelching and steaming as we dried out. Still, day 1 was eventually completed, and people hobbled back to the beer tent for a swift crate before retiring to the showers and bed.
Day 2 - Another early rise and we were off again to complete fifty miles and reach the psychologically important half-way point. However, feet were already blistering and all concerned were now in varying degrees of pain. Cause for particular concern was Sgt. Gary Thomas who had suffered day 1 in quiet agony due to an ingrowing toenail. By now, with the pain becoming unbearable, medical attention was sought. The medical staff strongly advised Gary call it a day and so, sadly, he threw in the towel and remained at camp for the duration. The team pressed on, aware that the loss of one more member would mean losing the team medal. We slowly saw off the miles and thus concluded our second day. By now, those dreaded blisters were very much in evidence. Irrespective of whether you carried the 24lb pack (mandatory for men), marching in boots on tarmac for that distance takes its toll. Medical attention was available at camp but the wait could be hours, due to the high number requiring treatment. Most of the team attempted self treatment as best they could.
Day 3 - The earliest rise yet, 3.30am, and off we plodded again. Day 3 introduced the team to several hills, which was a pleasant experience I can assure you. However, moral was still excellent, partially due to Ted who kept us all singing away despite being in pain himself. But back to those hills. They were long. They were big. They were daunting. However, it was here that our two pace-setters, Sue and Emma, found their second wind and some divine inspiration, charging up those hills with the rest of us carried in their wake. This not only surprised two American teams, who stepped out of our path, but also the Parachute Rgt. team, who looked incredulous as we stormed past, and were heard to make comments reference random drug tests.
The final leg of this long day seemed to go on for ever, not helped by the intense humidity, but eventually we trudged back into camp and marched straight into the beer tent. By now, both Lea and myself were feeling symptoms of a cold, no doubt caused by the soaking on the first day. As for the others, no such problems as singing and drinking became the order of the day. Chris Francis, unbeknown to the rest of us, decided that now was the time to audition for the Chippendales, and proceeded to disrobe. This resulted in several of those present requiring medical attention and hordes of people were seen clambering over one another for the exits!
Day 4 - The final day! I awoke with a cold and immediately went into self-pity mode. The arrival of the ladies confirmed that Lea had the same symptoms, runny nose, cold sweats and teddy bears flying everywhere. But the final leg brings new resolve and everyone was determined to get it over and done with. Ian Denny herded us to the start point and we began the final 25 miles. By now our tootsies were in two states - heavily blistered and very heavily blistered - and other ailments were creeping in also. Di Lockert's knees were giving way, but then I have that effect on women! and Lea's smile and chirpy character was replaced by a sniffling, coughing, depressed wreck. Sue and Emma, at the front of the team, were obviously suffering but kept the pace, which confirms my theory that if you consume enough foreign beer your nervous system doesn't register pain. I seriously contemplated taking a taxi but then you can never find one when you want one.
After what seemed an eternity, the Union Jack was visable rising from a distant field, which signalled not just another rest stop, but the finishing post. Pain was cast aside and smiles reappeared as the team charged in on full afterburner. We stormed past the final post and homed in on the Brit. tent, collapsing in an undignified heap. Boots were gingerly removed and feet aired as Ian Denny hobbled to the marshalling tent to collect our individual medals and the all-important team medal. We'd done it, and we were proud of our achievements that day, deservedly so I think.
A short bus ride returned us to camp and, not surprisingly, we found ourselves in that holiest of shrines, the beer tent. The euphoria and beer took over and aching bodies were soon numbed to the required level. The team found comfort in the knowledge that the following morning would bring nothing more demaning than a well-earned rest.
Having had some time to reflect on all this now, I would say, hand on heart, that the good points far outweigh the bad, of the Nijmegan experience.
'Tropical Island Holiday'?
(By Robin Hudson)
It was 1971 and I was stationed at RAF Henlow, working in what was nicknamed 'The Factory', where we carried out deep maintenance on all sorts of radio and radar equipment. It was just like working in a factory, start at 8 am and finish at 5 pm without seeing much of the outside world in between, hence the nickname. However, unbeknown to me, someone much higher up the chain of command had obviously taken pity on me and, as my 21st birthday was fast approaching, decided I should celebrate that birthday by having a holiday on a lovely tropical island. My posting to RAF Gan in the Indian Ocean had arrived!
'Just before you go to Gan, we'd like you to go down to RAF Locking for a couple of weeks course on teleprinters, if you wouldn't mind', they said, or something like that. After returning from Locking, it was no time before I was on my way to the Indian Ocean, via RAF Brize Norton and an RAF VC-10.
The first thing that struck me, literally, was the heat as we stepped off the plane onto the island of Gan, like someone slapping a hot towel in your face. As can be seen in the photo below, Gan is not a big place, just enough room for a decent sized runway and accommodation for the support infrastructure and personnel. This was to be my home for the next 9 months, I was to become a 'Gannite'.
Gan Island from the air
As a 'moonie', it took some getting use to my new posting, not only adjusting to my new surroundings, beautiful as they were, and the climate, but not helped by being assigned to a different job to that for which I had spent time at Locking training for, still, that's Service life for you! Eventually, everything sorted itself out, and I was put to work servicing teleprinters in the COMCEN, as intended, and I got use to life on Gan.
Life on the island was pretty good, with plenty of clubs and bars, the main bar being the '180 Club', where many an hour was passed in merriment. Being a hot climate, normal day time work started early and finished early, which allowed a fair amount of free time for pastimes, with no end of opportunities including island strolling along the beaches, as shown below (you could circumnavigate the island in an afternoon), swimming and snorkelling, water skiing, golf (yes, Gan had its own golf course), fishing and any number of other pursuits. It was just like watching an RAF recruiting film of years gone by, you know the ones.
A much younger me beach strolling on Gan
One of the highlights of Gan's year was the Dhoni Races. Dhonis were the local natives boats and means of travel between the various islands that made up Addu Atoll, of which Gan was one. Once a year, the various units on Gan formed teams to man these large rowing boats and race one another, not quite the University Boat Race but something similar. The boats were positioned on the beach near the main jetty and the teams formed up. On the start signal, the teams raced for their boats, rather like a Le Mans start, pushed the boats into the water and clambered aboard. Everone then rowed for all their worth, around a pre-set course, finally returning to the start/finish line, obviously, the first back were the winners. It was hard work but great fun.
Another form of entertainment was hanging around the Transit Lounge when a trooping flight to/from the Far East was passing through, to get a glimpse of any women on the flight (Gan was an all male posting). After extended periods without female company, it was nice to see a pretty face, even from a distance! There was the Astra cinema, which was always well attended, regardless of what film was showing. While I was there, we had a visit from a Service's Entertainment Party, which included Joe Brown and the 'Bruvvers', who played at the Astra to packed houses. During the performances, Joe would ask if anyone had any request for any of his songs. On the night I attended, someone asked him to play 'Little White Bull', which was a song by Tommy Steel, not Joe Brown, but Joe took it in good heart.
The Astra Cinema on Gan, scene of the 'Joe Brown Incident'
The weather wasn't always good, and during the monsoon season we did get plenty of rain. As is usual in the tropics, the rain seemed to come down all at once and then clear through. One night, during a particularly wild storm, an RAF VC-10 on approach was caught by a strong sidegust of wind which blew it over the top of the accommodation blocks, which sounded scary to us on the ground, it must have been frightening for those onboard!
Sunset over Addu Atoll
Another flying incident occurred when a US Air Force KC-135 (Boeing 707) was staging through. After refueling, he took off on full power which, on that particular type of aircraft, involved injecting water into the engines to create extra boost. Just after lift-off, first one engine failed, then a second (he had 4 engines) and he just managed to turn back to the runway and land before a third engine failed. It transpired that, when the engine's water injection system had been topped-up by the Gan ground crew, being unfamiliar with the system, ordinary water had been used instead of purer distilled water. The impurities in the ordinary water had burned causing the engines to overheat and fail, I bet someone got their wrists slapped over that one! Needless to say, the aircraft remained on the island until new engines could be shipped in and fitted.
The silver sand beaches on Gan
Gan was a lovely island, as can be seen from the pictures with this article, and a great posting, but after 9 months I was looking forward to getting back home, my 'holiday' was wearing thin. So came the time it was my turn to arrive at the Transit Lounge, not to look at the women or say farewell to friends returning to the UK, but to depart the island myself. The VC-10 with my name on it duly arrived.
'Swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home', RAF VC-10, my ticket home
Just at the last minute, as I had psyched myself up to leaving, there as a delay in boarding because, an item due to be carried in the freight hold turned-out to be too big to fit (no, not my deep-sea trunk). Eventually, with everyone on board, the door was closed on Gan and we took-off for home.
I could have written much more about Gan but space constraints dictate otherwise. I enjoyed my time on the island and remember the place with good memories. In 1975, the British finally withdrew from the island. Today, the island is a holiday resort, with regular flights to and from the capital of the Maldives, Male. Information on Gan today can be found at www.visitaddu.com and reminiscences of RAF Gan at www.gan.philliptsmall.me.uk, and hometown.aol.com/llerris/rafgan.html or just Google 'RAF Gan'.
Finally, one last photo taken on Gan, of one of the supply ships which called every now and again, especially included for Roddy, our own old sea dog. Can you tell what it is yet Roddy.
Gan supply ship
'A Christmas Island Story'
(By Roddy Moffat)
Reading of Robin Hudson's experiences as a young Serviceman on the island of Gan reminded me of my own service on a Pacific atoll.
In 1958, I was posted to Christmas Island in the Pacific, 1200 miles south of Hawaii. This was Britain's main test area for nuclear bombs, and I was 'volunteered' by the War Office, as were thousands of other troops, as what was euphemistically known as 'witnesses'.
I was trained as a Ground Radar Mechanic in the RAF, working on Receiver Consoles, and in this capacity was serving at RAF Boulmer in 1957, when I was detached to RAF Feltwell for a short training course on the Ack Ack 3 Mk. 7 Tracking Radar. In WWII, these units were used, in conjunction with Ack Ack Artillery, to locate and 'lock onto' an aircraft, the radar and guns thus following it wherever it went. On his screen in the mobile radar unit, the operator fed range, bearing and elevation to the guns, enabling them to lock onto the target. On Christmas Island we would be using the unit in much the same way, except we would be plotting the information coming in on a map using a moving pen.
Two months after I returned to Boulmer, I was sent to RAF Innsworth for kitting out with tropical gear. A train journey from Innswoth took about 200 assorted RAF tradesmen to London Airport for a flight by BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation, forerunner of British Airways) to New York where, after a few hours, American Airlines took us, first to San Francisco, then on to Honolulu. The flight to Christmas Island was on board an RAF Hastings. It must be remembered that there were no package holidays in those days, and for practically all the young Servicemen, this was their first trip outside the UK. Couple this with the fact none of us knew what the bomb tests entailed, and you had a pretty carefree attitude among us.
On arrival on Christmas Island, I initially shared a tent at the main camp with about 30 others. Daily, a dozen or so of us, who were going to form 'Y' Site, about 7-10 miles from 'Ground Zero', went to this site to erect tents and living quarters, bouncing across the coral in a 3-tonner. Our tents were on one side of a lagoon, with the units and generators on the other side. It was a walk around
'Y' Site, Christmas Island, showing 'Sgt. Flit' overhead spraying DDT to keep down the flies
the lagoon to work of about a couple of hundred yards, but usually, one of us carried the other's clothes whilst the rest swam across.
Showing just how flat Christmas Island is, nothing higher than a few feet above sea level
In the run up to a bomb test there would be about 4000 Army, Navy, Air Force and AWRE (Atomic Weapons Research Establishment) personnel on the island, so it can be appreciated that our little unit of about 16, including 3 Sergeants and a Flight Sergeant, were quite happy to be living and working away from such a large number of people all sharing tents and mess halls. After our equipment and quarters had been set up, we settled down to rehearsals for the main event, these rehearsals taking place about twice a week.
There were three of the Tracking Radar units, one on the aircraft carrying the bomb, one on the second aircraft, which had observers on board and would be the lead aircraft on the next test and one on the Canberra aircraft, which would fly through the nuclear cloud obtaining samples.
On the test I am writing about, I was the operator tracking the lead aircraft. Sitting in the unit, I wore headphones whereby I could hear the pilot, though not speak to him, and also my C.O. in the Plotting Caravan, to whom I could talk. The first and second aircraft were Valiants, and the crews often came to our site to sit in the units with the operator, to see what was happening at our end of the rehearsals.
On the morning of the teat, we were all up and about earlier than usual. Our dress that day, as opposed to our usual shorts and sandels, was long trousers, shirt with the sleeves rolled down and shoes. I believe our dress that day was for radiation protection! I sat in my cabin for what was a dummy run by the aircraft to the target. I could hear the lead aircraft pilot talking to the scientists at the airfield regarding visibility over the target, together with weather conditions, and for my part I was able to follow the aircraft on the run without any problems at our end. The go ahead was given for a 'Live' run.
I again picked up the aircraft on his run in and was able to follow him as the command was given to drop the bomb. His run was of course being plotted on the map in the Plotting Caravan, via information from the radar unit and the moving pen. As he came up to the bombing point, I heard him say 'Bomb gone'. At this point, I came off tracking the aircraft and began searching for the falling bomb. When I found it, we began tracking it in the caravan. During this time, from bomb gone, a countdown was taking place and, three seconds from detonation, I unlocked the radar and swung the aerial 180 degrees, to protect it from the 'flash' of the detonation. About a minute after detonation, the order was given to evacuate the radar unit and caravan and head for our shelter, which was corrugated iron supported by sandbags, which was to give us protection from the blast of the bomb.
When I came out of my unit, I looked in the direction of Ground Zero and saw the most terrifying sight one could imagine. The whole sky was on fire, a mixture of red, orange and black flames, as if the very clouds were on fire. Looking around me in the shelter, there were worried and frightened faces, mirroring my own fears. The blast then came, which shook our shelter violently, and we could see our units being bounced around, with the nearby palm trees bending almost to the ground. The heat from the bomb was
Damage to the tents at 'Y' Site after the 'H' bomb test
tremendous, even given that the daily temperature on the island was between 100 and 125 degrees, this was much hotter. Then came the order to leave the shelter and observe Ground Zero. Where there had been Hell in the skies, there was now the usual beautiful blue, with a magnificent white mushroom formation rising up for miles and miles.
To be a witness to this sight is something which I have never forgotten, and in discussion with others who were there, it is something we never will. Over the years, many who took part in these tests suffered appalling cancer related illnesses, and in many cases their children and grandchildren have suffered likewise. I have tried at Nuclear Test Veterans Association conferences and on Channel 4 Service Pals, to contact any of those who were with me on Christmas Island, but I have found only two. I often wonder how the rest got on. If anyone reading this was stationed on Christmas Island during the tests, or knows of anyone who was, please get in touch via the 'Contac Us' page of this website. The British Nuclear Test Veterans Association website can be found at:- www.bntva.com
Roddy Moffat relaxing in the NAAFI on Christmas Island
'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 1)
(By Bruce Hudson)
After 42 years, I have finally got round to drafting some recollections of my RAF days with the Red Arrows aerobatic team.
January 1966 I arrived at the Guardroom of RAF Little Rissington in the Cotswolds, home of the Central Flying School (CFS) of the RAF at that time, ready to be let loose on the real RAF after three years apprentice training at RAF Halton. My Entry (106th) was the last of the Aircraft Apprentices to be trained at No. 1 School of Technical Training (1 S of TT), the last of 'Trenchard's Brats'.
Once the formalities were over and I was settled into my, rare for those days, single person accommodation, I reported for duty to the Scheduled Servicing Flight (SSF), commanded by the first female engineering officer in the RAF, Barbara Jones. Work was carried out on all the types of aircraft operated by CFS, Varsity, Gnat, Chipmunk, Meteor, Vampire and Jet Provost. I was attached to a Jet Provost (JP) servicing team.
The JP was a simple basic jet trainer. A single hydraulic jack, linked to the three legs by a series of chains and cables, actuated its retractable undercarriage. Simple and generally effective. At the end of servicing of an aircraft, an air test was carried out, and always keen to fly, I eventually had the opportunity to go up on one of these test flights, my first jet sortie.
Rissington was also home of the RAF Aerobatic Team, the Red Arrows, then in their third year of existence, having been formed out of the previous aerobatic team the Yellow Jacks, from 4 FTS at RAF Valley. Headed by Sqdn. Ldr. Ray Hanna, they already had a well founded reputation as one of the best formation aerobatic teams in the world, flying the small but very agile Folland (later Hawker Sidderley) Gnat advanced jet trainer.
Red Arrows Gnat
At the end of the 'Arrows' display season, there was always the need to catch up on the in-depth servicing not possible during the summer months, and a 'Winter Servicing' programme was started each October. The aircraft flew in from RAF Kemble (a satellite airfield to Rissington) and all were worked on simultaneously to ready them for the next February, when training would start for the new season. This significant increase in maintenance workload could not be achieved by the engineers attached to the Team, and so had to be supplemented by Station personnel. I was chosen to be posted to the Winter Servicing team to work on the Gnat. To achieve the end result, day and night shifts were worked through the winter months, for me just a new and enjoyable experience.
Towards the end of the winter period, I was called into speak with the Chief Tech. who ran the Teams travelling ground crew, some 20 - 25 airmen, and asked if I would like to join them for the 1967 season. This was one decision that didn't take me long to make. Youngish (20), single and the prospect of travelling extensively at HM Governments expense, I quickly signed on.
Once the aircraft began to become available, having completed their Winter Servicing. and had been ferried back to Kemble, the daily routine of extensive pre-season training started. A Land Rover would leave Little Rissington at 7 am each morning, with an advance ground crew party to start pre-flight checks on the aircraft, to be joined at 8-30 by the RAF coach bringing in the rest of the ground crew. The two black corrugated iron hangars allocated to the Team, were on the far side from the main site at Kemble. One housed the serviceable Team aircraft, while the other was used by the Team's base maintenance group.
Initially, new pilots, usually 2 or 3, joining the Team for the new season, would be taken up in ever increasing formation sizes, until the full team would fly three full practices each day, weather permitting (nowadays they go to Cyprus). This was intensive work for us all. Kemble was used rather than Little Rissington because there was little or no other flying activity and the practices, using the runway as the display datum, could be used without the interruptions of the other training activities at CFS itself.
My trade was airframes, which entailed before flight, turnaround and after flight inspections, and rectification work as required. All ground crew also had a secondary role and mine was diesel. This may seem strange in relation to jet aircraft but it was used to create the smoke used during displays. White is pure diesel injected into the hot jet stream from the engine, and red and blue are diesel mixed with coloured dyes. The Arrow's aircraft were specially modified to allow for smoke generation during the display. Two 25 gallon fuel tanks, wrapped around the engine just to the rear of the wing, were blanked off and used to contain 50 gallons of diesel. Two small additional tanks were installed in the rear end around the jet pipe, and they contained the dye. Protruding into the jet stream were four nozzles, two for diesel and one each for the red and blue dyes. Switches on the control column then allowed the pilot to select smoke on/off and change colours during the display. Each sortie would consume the full 50 gallons, 450 gallons per sortie for the full team, and I and one other had the job of topping this up each time using a hand pump! While at Kemble, we had hand bowsers of about 250 gallons to drag around the flight line, but when away from base the diesel was supplied in 50 gallon drums. These drums could be rolled up to the aircraft but then had to be lifted upright, to allow the hand pump to be inserted into the filler cap, without hitting the aircraft!
I didn't have to wait long to get my first opportunity to fly in the Gnat. There was a requirement for nine ground crew, known as the 'Flying Circus', to fly in the back seats during transit flights. Ensuring they were up to it was important from the aircrew's point of view and Ray Hanna took me up on this first trip as he, being the leader, flew the smoothest display sequence. Hooked by the experience of my first aerobatics in the Gnat, this was the first of many flights both in transit and during displays, including the solo's sequence.
In episode two of this saga, I will relate some of the tales of my first tour of duty with the Team during the 1967-69 Seasons.
'Life As A Service Brat' (Part 1)
(By Mark Elliott)
My earlist memories start in Libya, my father was posted to El Adem in 1965 and six months later we went out. I was a toddler and my brother a small baby. The house had a flat roof and we spent many happy hours playing up there under the protection of an old blanket streched out to form some shade. We had a pet tortoise that, after an unexpected parachute jump from the roof (the blame was never pinned down), died and ended up on the red ants nest in the back garden. The shell became quite an interesting object for me, I was never sure where the tortoise had gone, but this incident sparked an interest in bugs and beasts, which has never gone away.
My dad disappeared for a few weeks (he was on an expedition with Zeke Zelany, to discover if they could mount rescue operations to recover downed pilots in the Sahara). He returned very brown and sporting a hairy growth on his chin, which we didn't take to. He also had a stinking cheetah skin which he had traded a tin of rations for with a Turag. Mum thought it was disgusting and washed it! Surprisingly, it survived the ordeal and became a great plaything as we raced up and down with the thing attached to our heads pretending to be savages. I still have the remains to this day, and another generation of children are playing with it.
My lifelong fear of spiders came from an episode at this time in the kitchen. Mum had come in to discover a huge hairy spider (jumping camel spider) on the floor, she decided to take a broom and try to sweep it out the back door. Imagine her horror as the thing jumped up and landed on her shoulder, she went berserk! Eventually, she calmed down when the object of the horror had been dealt with, but the impression of this event was indelibly impressed on my mind and my fear of spiders was to haunt me until my mid-thirties.
Mark (standing) with mother and brother on beach in Libya
Being very young, I don't remember much about being evacuated to Famagusta in Cyprus, when Ghdaffi took-over in Libya, but I do remember the great beaches and swimming in the sea.
The next stop I do remember was Ballykelly in Northern Ireland. Dad was working on Shackletons with 204 Squadron, this must have been around 1967. Life in N. Ireland was very different as I was sent to primary school and the temperature was distinctly chilly compared to what I had been used to. Dad was reading us 'The Hobbit' by Tolkien, and he used to take us out into the woods at the weekend looking for Elves and Hobbit holes. We spent many a happy hour peering down rabbit and badger holes expecting some small hairy footed Hobbit to appear. We never saw a Hobbit, dad told us they were very shy and the only way to see them was to be very quiet as we walked around, something we never managed to do!
On the beach in Donegal with grandparents
Holidays were spent on the Donegal coast in a small caravan by the beach, many happy hours were spent building castles and then knocking them down again. We collected winkles in a bucket and, after boiling them, ate them with a pin. We thought this a delicacy and loved our trips to the beach. A visit to the Giants Causeway resulted in more hunts for mythical creatures. Giants lived in caves on the top of mountains and eat small boys who are not well behaved! N. Ireland was a beautiful country and we loved our weekend trips out, but this was soon to stop.
My first experience of the 'troubles' was on a trip to pick-up my grandparents from the airport, they had come to visit us. On our way back home, we found ourselves in a riot, luckily we were in the car and soon out of trouble, but were all shaken by the time we got home. Even the children I played with seemed to become polarised, asking if I was a 'catlick' or a 'proddy dog'? I had no idea what I was and tried to stay out of the squabbles that erupted in the playground. Soon after this event dad was posted again and we were off to Norway.
Dad had been posted to Kolsas and we had been allocated a 2nd floor flat on the outskirts of Oslo. Norway was a wonderful place to be a child, we went to school at St. Georges, Oslo. We did fun sports like orienteering and cross-country skiing, craftwork and outdoor lessons in the summer. School reports show a pattern that continued throughout my education, 'Shows promise but could do better.' Weekends were spent either in the great outdoors, a five minute walk from the flat, or at one of the big museums in Oslo. I was captivated by the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo, and all the treasure that the Vikings left behind. Daydreams of searching for piles of Viking gold and silver followed.
Building a den in Norway
Life took an unfortunate turn when mum fell down the stairs at the flat, broke her back, and ended up in hospital for over six months, paralysed from the waist down. We only saw her at the weekends when dad would drive us to the hospital, mum in plaster from the waist down trying very hard to reassure us that she would be fine and be back soon. That summer seemed to take forever, but the Norwegian government provided us with a house mother who came in the mornings to make us breakfast and get us ready for school, and came back in the evening to make dinner (can't ever see that happening on the NHS!). Mum eventually came home after eight operations. Summers were spent camping and visiting historical locations, and I grew to love Norway. We played with the local children and soon had our own patois of Norwegian/English. Summers were hot and dry, and winters were equally fantastic; dry snow, we even made igloos! Some of the mothers came out in their swinsuits to sunbathe on deckchairs surrounded by snow, what a sight!
The lady who owned the flat lived at the top and was very formidable. Her only son had worked for the Norwegian resistance during the war, and had died at the hands of the Gestapo. One day, someone scrawled a swastika at the entrance of the building and she went completely mad, shouting and screaming. Dad tried to explain why she was so upset and it made me think of the sacrifices that had been made by so many during the war. Playing Germans Vs British didn't seem the same after that.
A highlight for us was the delivery, at the International High School, of a real piece of Moon rock, collected on one of the Apollo missions. The whole junior school was organised to take a trip past the rock, which was on display in the gym. All the children were very excted at the prospect of seeing a real piece of the Moon. At our duly allotted slot, we piled into the gym in single file and in the middle, inside a case surrounded by guards, lay the legendary piece of rock. As I took my turn, I remember being very surprised that it was a boring grey colour and not green as I had expected.
I fell in love for the first time with a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl who lived down the road, called Hannah, this was towards the end of our tour. One night dad came home and told us we were returning to the UK to live. I was heartbroken. Hannah and her parents came to wave goodbye to us as we left on the boat back to England. I was miserable until my brother and I found some money in a slot machine, put it in and won the jackpot! I'm sure we didn't get all of our winnings to keep, but mum and dad had a good time in the bar that evening.
Our next posting was Abingdon and we had married quarters on the edge of the base facing the fields. Dad was working on Hercules' with UKMAMS. We managed to pinch his helmet, which we carefully stored in our den, a mile away up a streambed, along with some WWI binoculars that my grandfather had given me. The Red Arrows were based there at the time and I spent many hours watching them flying around, wishing I was up there with them. Dad knew the team and managed to procure a flight jacket, which he gave me. I was so made up and wore it everywhere, even though it was massive on me. A lot of time was spent pretending to fly, my brother sat behind me as the co-pilot. I still have the jacket, it was dyed black to distinguish it from the drab green colour that ordinary crews wore.
RAF Hercules on exercise with UKMAMS
Holidays were spent visiting relatives I had forgotten I had, mixed with the ubiquitous trips to historical sites; Wayland's Smithy, the West Kennet long barrow, Uffington White-horse and Hill-fort, Sillbury Hill, and of course Stonehenge. All this history was having an impact, and I wasn't sure how to reconcile my love of fast jets, with the idea of being an explorer, finding lost cities in the jungles of America.
UKMAMS was moved to RAF Lynham in Wiltshire, and we moved again, although not to Lynham, as accommodation there was in short supply, but to RAF Melksham, which although closed, had kept the married quarters. It was great, most of the quarters were empty and endless hours were spent investigating the gardens, scrumping and running away from the caretakers. We found a huge sand pit to play in and started to find spent rounds. Of course, we had stumbled upon the old rifle range. Showing how small the world is, I remember talking to member Reg Brown when he told me he had spent his bomb disposal training on that very range thirty years previous to our being there!
Life seemed very slow then. I had a two-mile walk to school and lived in fear of our sadistic gym teacher, who used to make us swim in the unheated pool in the winter. I hated getting in, and the only way to survive was to thrash around in the water to keep warm. One evening, dad came home to tell us we were moving again, this time to AFCENT in Holland. But that, and the rest of this story, will have to wait until part 2.
'Memories of Akrotiri'
(By James Smith)
'One of the favourite forms of ambush by terrorists is to attack your truck after dark on a stretch of road where there is a deep ditch at the side, as you dive for cover, you impale yourselves on sharpened stakes they have placed in the bottom of the ditch.' This statement had its full effect by jolting us into reality (and frightening us to death), and was part of the 3-day intensive ground defence training dished out by the Rock Apes to new arrivals at RAF Akrotiri. My course mates were all, like myself, from administration, and so they really put us through it with much relish!
The base at Akrotiri was, at that time (early 1960s), the RAF's largest, with nearly 5000 personnel and was like a small town with its own shops, sports stadium and Astra Cinema. I remember a comical notice in the cinema stating the manager was not responsible for injuries caused in the rush to get out before the National Anthem!
I arrived in Cyprus on a British United Airways Britannia at Nicosia, and was transported in the early hours across to Akrotiri. As soon as I had found my barrack room and made my bed up, I was told to report 'pronto' to the General Office in SHQ, where I would look after the P3 section, so much for being given time to settle in!
One of my early memories of Akrotiri is the night the Officer's Mess was struck by lightning and burnt down. However, an RAF Regiment officer managed to dash in and retrieve all the mess bills. Needless to say, he was the most hated man on the base for some considerable time.
Not long after my arrival in Cyprus, the troubles flared up again between the Turkish and Greek Cypriots. This led to the mass evacuation of servicemen's families from Limassol in the midst of flying bullets and exploding mortor bombs. As a clerk in SHQ, I was drafted in to process all the paperwork required as part of the evacuation to the UK, and have vivid memories of dealing with traumatised wives and children who had not had time to pack and arrived at the evacuation centre in just what they stood up in. Security was tightened up considerably; we had to maintain a 24 hr presense in SHQ, which required some of us to sleep on camp beds in the Central Registry. I was rostered as one of the escorts on the truck that brought bread from the Army bakery at Dhekalia (70 miles away) to Akrotiri. We were issued with Lee Enfield .303 rifles, but no ammunition! My truck arrived back at Akrotiri one afternoon with bullet holes in the canvas covers, we had ammunition after that episode!
There were much lighter times at Akrotiri. As a qualified gliding instructor, I spent many happy hours soaring in the Cyprus clouds, sometimes flying over the salt flats near the base in company of pink Flamingos which wintered there. Also, DJing for the radio station and interviewing people such as Richard Hearne (Mr. Pastry) and Marty Wilde, during visits by Forces Entertainment. Nights at the famous tunnel beach near Episkpi and visits to the Temple of Aphrodite at Paphos.
Christmas time saw various units on the base allowed to construct temporary bars, with a prize for the most impressive. This brought a new meaning to the phrase 'a merry Christmas'. Much effort went into the building of these bars, with each unit's pride at stake. The picture below shows my unit's bar being enjoyed by myself and friends.
I returned to the UK in 1964 for a relatively very quiet spell at RAF Wroughton.
James Smith (far right) and friends enjoying their unit Christmas bar
'502 Sqn. Stornoway 1944 - 45'
(By John K. Davenport DFC, RAF Rt'd)
John K. Davenport c. 1946
I was a pilot with 502 Squadron flying long-range Halifaxes of Coastal Command, first from St. Davids in southwest Wales on anti-submarine operations, then based at Stornoway, in the Hebrides, from September 1944. I look back at my posting to Stornoway as the last of a series of mile-stones in my flying career.
Having volunteered, with my twin brother Peter, to be a pilot, the first mile-stone was my first solo in a Tiger Moth, on my 19th birthday. The second was being awarded my 'Wings' in Canada flying Oxfords. Then being selected for Coastal Command, to fly Mitchells and Liberators at RAF Nassau in the Bahamas. The next came at the tender age of 21, making an attack on a German U-boat in the Bay of Biscay, my first action of any kind, against fierce flak opposition in bright moonlight in a white Halifax Mk. II of 502 Sqn., staying at the controls at the request of my American captain. Finally, my posting to Stornoway in September 1944. 502 Squadron became, with 58 Sqn., the only two operational Halifax squadrons in Coastal Command, taking-on a completely new role in the maritime war. The previous experience of night attacks in the Bay of Biscay found us ideally equipped to take the offensive against German shipping movemnets between Norway, Denmark and the Baltic.
We would use radar to find them, employ flares or moonlight to illuminate them, and finally drop six 500lb bombs to damage or sink them. Until the start of our operations, ships had been able to move under cover of darkness unscathed, free from threat of attack. These ships carried troops, vehicles, artillery and other war materials, or raw material such as iron ore, sulphur and coke across the Skagarrak and Kattegat sea areas, or up the Norwegian coast to Bergen or Trondheim, supplying the U-boat bases.
Stornoway airfield was very suitable, with no land hazards, except a 800ft hill due north, which required care taking-off on Runway 36 with a fully loaded aircraft on instruments. It was fairly free from weather problems of snow or fog, but it was often wet and windy. Accommodation was in Nissen huts with a central stove and separate toilet/shower facilities, primative in comparison with pre-war RAF stations. The Officer's and Sergeant's Messes were more civilised, though overwhelmed at first with the large influx of aircrew arriving. Stornoway seemed remote, especially when travelling to and from leave. Seven hours on a train from London, via Inverness, to the Kyle of Lochalsh, followed by an eight hour ferry trip, made for a prolonged journey. There was very little night life, few pubs, one cinema and a quiet Sabbath. As aircrew, we had extra leave, extra pay and always slept between sheets. We didn't have to fight in blood or mud, casualty rates were lower than in Bomber Command and, with attacks on German shipping, we were not involved in 'Area Bombing', with its inevitable mass of civilian casualties.
Moral at Stornoway was very high, superb leadership and training in the air and on the ground really helped. There was a plentiful supply of wartime low strength beer to contribute to a number of rough games, bawdy songs and topical limericks, rounded off by singing the 'Sash', 502's squadron song arising from its Ulster origins.
Officer's Mess RAF Stornoway during visit by BBC in 1944 (John Davenport extreme right)
The prospect of frequent action led to an expertise, refined by a bombing course at Leuchars, where we practised on trawlers in the North Sea. We developed a night technique of constant angle radar homing and wind gauging by use of flame floats to set the wind on the automatic bomb-sight. If no moon, we'd return to the target to drop six delayed action parachute flares, making a detour to the opposite side of the ship(s) silhouetted by the flares to make the attack. This technique led to our attack on the 'Pergamon' in January 1945, when we scored 3 direct hits and its sinking.
In the early months, we flew Halifax GR Mk. II in white Coastal Command camouflage, most unsuitable for our night operations, as it was so conspicuous in moonlight (I'm sure it contributed to our losses), but it was fully equipped for our purposes, with radar, Gee navigation, radio altimeter (used for flying at 100ft at night to avoid enemy radar), extra fuel, Mk. XIV bomb-sight, flares, flame floats and even a photo-flash camera to record results. In February 1945, we converted to Halifax Mk. III, with more powerful Hercules engines and more suitable black camouflage, which must have saved many lives.
John Davenport's Halifax GR Mk. II and crew
The two squadrons made over 200 attacks on German shipping. Results during wartime were often impossible to gauge, but one of our first, on the 'Palos' in November 1944, was reported by a Swedish paper. The next two, on the 'Pergamon' and T/16 Torpedo Boat, had to await comfirmation by the MOD in 1993! The last, and most dangerous, was on the 'Neukuhren' in April 1945. Having reported 2 hits at the time, we were able to find the wreck aground and photographed it, on a post-war sortie, even to read it's name! These two sinkings were mentioned in the citation for my DFC (Distinguished Flying Cross).
'Neukuhren' , sunk April 1945
The effects of 502 and 58 Squadron's blockade of German shipping resulted in German troops in Norway, not being available for the Battle of the Bulge in the Ardennes in 1945, some achievement!
'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 2)
(By Bruce Hudson)
In Part 1, I had joined the Red Arrows team travelling ground crew at the end of 1967, during the Winter Servicing period.
Now based at RAF Kemble, a satellite airfield to RAF Little Rissington (LR), some 20 miles south, along the Foss Way, it meant early morning starts during the work up period to the display season. The Land Rover (no heater to speak of, and silly little windscreen wipers with manual override!) party, would hurtle off at 07-00 hrs. from LR. in all weathers, to start the preparations for the days flying, to be joined later by the rest of the ground crew in an RAF coach, and the pilots even later still in their Morris J2 minibus.
A normal working day during this period would be to launch three sorties, dependant on weather. Gradually, the formation size would increase as the new pilots were integrated, until the team were flying full 9 aircraft sorties, and full display sequences.
Evenually, after much practice, and clearance by the AOC, the day of the first public display arrived, 4 April 1968. This year it was at RAF Thorney Island, down on the south coast. For me, a quick 30 minute ride in the Argosy (nicknamed the 'whistling wheel-barrow', amongst other things) support aircraft. Although the aircraft had a Load Master, the Team groundcrew had, over time, become expert and slick at loading and unloading the support aircraft, and the 'Loady' would normally be content to stand aside and watch in awe and wonder, and then do his final checks. Everything had its place, including the Land Rover we took with us, and usually once the Gnats had been sent on their way, the Argosy was ready to roll within 15 minutes.
The first overseas trip this season was to RAF Wildenrath, Germany in the middle of May. But then, having got back to Kemble on the 20 May, we were off again on the 23rd to Istres, in the south of France, Malta and Bari in Italy, returning via Malta and Istres to Kemble on the 29th. While in Malta, we did a display over Valetta harbour, in which I flew in the back seat of the No. 3 aircraft, to the right of the Leader, Ray Hanna.
In June, the Team continued with UK visits, plus back to France, this time to Tours, Toulouse and Nantes. I flew twice with the Leader on displays over Exeter and Lossiemouth.
August saw me flying in a display over RAF Halton, where I had done my Apprenticeship training, in the No. 8 slot, the far left wing tip position in 'Arrow' formation. A few days later, I was flying down the Bristol Channel at about 10 feet in a Gnat, you certainly get a sensation of speed at that altitude! Later in the month we visited Coxyde in Belgium.
At the end of August we were to display at Barritz, France, and for the first time we had a Hercules as our support aircraft. Different aircraft, different loading procedures, which had to be learnt quickly. Once at Barritz, the groundcrew were billeted in French paratroopers barracks, which you might well imagine left creature comforts somewhat lacking! To the extent the troops thought it would be better to spend the night in and around the Hercules. When word got back to the Team Manager and Boss (in their hotel!), they were not amused and put an end to our mutiny, so we consoled ourselves in the local bars.
September, and the annual trip to Dumpel, Germany. This was just a grass airstrip, so we operated from Koln, but after the display, were helicoptered into the airfield for the party. Displays in Jersey, and finally at the bi-annual air show at Farnborough, completed the 1968 season, a total of 87 trips and 85 hours flying for me.
Once the Winter Servicing was out of the way again, it was back to training in early 1969. This year I was allocated to the Flying Circus (the 9 tradesmen, plus the Engineering Officer, who travelled with the Gnats), to fly in the back of No. 4 aircraft with Flt. Lt. Dicky Ducket (later to become Captain of the Queen's Flight, and an Air Commodore). Now I got to fly in the Gnat on all trips. Overseas trips to France, Germany, Italy, Belgium, Crete and Cyprus took place this year. Highlights were doing a show over Monte Carlo and the trip to Cyprus.
The Red Arrows 'Flying Circus' flying groundcrew - Bruce Hudson far left
On the transit flight from Souda Bay, Crete to Cyprus, and by prior arrangement, we had agreed to be intercepted by the Lightnings based at Akrotiri. As we approached the island of Cyprus at 41,000 feet, and into radar cover, the formation of 10 Gnats made a rapid descent to low level so that, by the time we met up with the Lightnings, we were able to manoeuvre hard, and although they had speed and afterburners on their side, several times the Gnats got behind them, when they would just light the afterburners to get away. After some 10 minutes (we were always short on fuel) of hectic dogfighting, we resumed our flight to land in Cyprus.
Flying as the back-seater with your own pilot, the Circus airmen got a considerable opportunity to fly the aircraft on the transit sectors. Flying at 41,000 feet, the engine was at about 99% power, and staying in the loose formation we transited in, required very gentle changes on the joystick, or you would end up dropping back. In 1969 I did 109 trips and 76 hours flying.
In 1970, I stayed with my pilot, who now became one of the 'Synchro Pair' (No. 7), the two aircraft that do the opposition flying, with closing speeds of 600 mph. Trips to Holland, France, Germany and Iceland this year, a total of 77 trips and 58 hours flying. The Iceland trip saw the Team's first visit to Stornoway on 24 August. The groundcrew stayed in the, now derelict, accommodation on the corner of the Melbost and Point roads. The aircraft taking up a tiny corner of the NATO hangar. Because of the critical range situation going westbound from Stornoway to Keflavik, the aircraft were made ready and on standby, with aircrew close by, ready to go as soon as the weather window appeared. The Gnat's short range, even with slipper tanks fitted to the wings, the changeable weather over Iceland and no alternates, meant there was a point of no return. The Circus did not fly on this leg (luckily). As soon as the weather report was received, they were away, and we followed in the Hercules support aircraft, and spent a couple of days being hosted by the Americans at Keflavik, returning direct to Lossiemouth on the 29th. The Team and I would be back to Stornoway again in May 1972, for the first ever trip to the States.
Part 3 of this saga, if I'm asked to write it, will cover my return to the 'real' Air Force in Bahrain, and my second tour with the Red Arrows.
'Pilgrimage To RAF Charterhall'
(By Donna Scott)
'Richard Hillary fought in the Battle of Britain with 603 (City of Edinburgh) Squadron. Shot down and severely burned in 1940, he recorded his experiences in his book 'The Last Enemy', before returning to flying duties in November 1942. Before the war he had stroked the Trinity College VIII to the Head of the River at Oxford. Wilfrid Fison, his radio op./observer, had been awarded a hockey Blue at Clare College, Cambridge in 1927. He joined the RAFVR in December 1941. The two men had flown together for less than two weeks.'
Thus reads the inscription on the Memorial at the site of the former RAF Station Charterhall, near Coldstream in the Borders of Scotland. The two men died in a fatal crash during a training flight in a Blenheim aircraft in the early hours of 8th January 1943, probably due to ice on the aircraft.
Having read 'The Last Enemy' for a second time, I felt compelled to find out more about it's author. I sourced the definitive biography of the man by David Ross. On reading that David was behind a project to have a memorial erected at Charterhall, I tentatively e-mailed him (via his publishers, Grub Street). Imagine my delight when I promptly received a warm, friendly and very informative reply. (We have since kept up a fairly regular correspondance). The Memorial was officially unveilled on 6th November 2001 by HRH The Duke of Kent KG, in the presence of many other relevant people including David Ross, Major Alexander Trotter, Her Majesty's Lord Lieutenant on whose land it stands, Rev. Geoffery Fison and Denise Patterson, to whom 'The Last Enemy' is dedicated.
I had to wait a while however, to visit the two places. Until the end of June 2009, when my partner Hector and I went to Edinburgh and the Borders, to visit my family. We had to hire a car to get to Charterhall, and I navigated us along the twisty, hedge-lined lanes, as Hector drove whilst trying to catch glimpses of the beautiful, lush countryside. We easily found the Memorial, it's well signposted; and there it was, at a crossroads in a lovely setting, backed by huge old trees.
Donna Scott at the RAF Charterhall Memorial
We stopped for a while to pay our respects and read the inscriptions. Then we drove down to the former RAF base. We drove between the derelict buildings, with their broken windows and rickety doors, till we reached the two big old hangars. We parked and set off in search of the maze of runways. It was difficult to figure out the layout as everywhere was so overgrown, and there were arable crops growing between what had been the runways. However, we plodded on down the rough surface, broken up in places due to neglect since the end of the war, till we came to one end of the main runway, where Hillary and Fison's Blenheim V had taken-off on it's last flight. We solemnly walked the length of the runway, while many enormous hares darted in and out of the undergrowth.
On returning to the old buildings, we explored amongst them. One door was open, inside was another door with a faded sign reading - STORES - SMOKING STRICTLY PROHIBITED(!) Further inside was an old, dirty Belfast sink - I just HAVE to touch old things like that because, you never know who might have touched it before you....
One of the derelict buildings at the former RAF Charterhall
Then it was time to find the crash site. After another twisty drive, deep into the Berwickshire countryside. we tracked down Crunklaw Farm and I knocked on the door. The lady got her husband (who was watching the British Lions losing). He showed us the field, and pointed out from the gate, the direction of travel of the stricken aircraft, and where various parts of the debris had been found. Then he left us to experience the place in private. It was very poignant. After a while, Hector said to me, 'This must mean a lot to you', and gulping down a huge lump in my throat I croaked, 'Don't be nice to me or I'll cry!' After another wee wander around, we walked back to the car and headed back to Galashiels.
It was immensely satisfying to achieve one of my main ambitions regarding what Hector calls 'my obsession'.
('The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death' - Corinthians XV, 26)
'Remembering Lewis and Sgt. T. Lyke'
(By Clifford Burkett)
During 1941/42 I was stationed on Lewis with the RAF, mostly at the HF D/F station at South Dell near Ness at the northern end of the island. While on Lewis, I had the tragic experience of losing a close friend, when his aircraft failed to return from a mission, only his second 'op'.
Tom Lyke was a school pal of mine. He trained as a flying-boat pilot in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) but, on returning to the UK, was posted to 58 Squadron flying Whitley bombers of Coastal Command from RAF Stornoway. Although we were both on Lewis at the same time, we were in contact by letter as I was at South Dell and didn't get the chance to visit Stornoway much. We had arranged to meet on the first occasion I had a day off and could get into Stornoway. The day I arrived at the aerodrome was the day following his aircraft going missing and, only when I enquired at the Sgt's. Mess, did I learn that he and his crew were missing.
Apparently, the aircraft had 'lost its way', and from colleagues at the HF D/F station at Tong, I knew that it called that station for a bearing. Tong was the D/F station for aircraft flying from/to Stornoway, being approximately in line with the runway. The time the aircraft called Tong must have been around dusk, because the operators were unable to give a bearing (QDM) because of what we called the 'sunset effect'. Tong was unable to make further contact with the aircraft.
A. W. Whitley aircraft, similar to that operated from RAF Stornoway in 1942 by 58 Squadron
The following is hearsay; later, when it was clear the aircraft would be about to run out of fuel, its assumed position (from radar?) was transmitted to it blind, presumably from RAF Stornoway Signals, but no reply was received. It is believed the aircraft ditched in the sea near the islands known locally as the 'Skerries'.
On my next leave, I visited Tom's mother. This was of course distressing, especially as she refused to accept that he must have died, but clung to the belief that he would have somehow reached an island or mainland Norway (too far), and that he would return after the war.
(Editor's Note:- Sgt. T. A. Lyke's aircraft, A. W. Whitley Mk. VI coded GE-O, serial Z9521 of 58 Squadron, took off from RAF Stornoway at 08-55 hrs on 28th November 1942, to carry out an anti-submarine sweep. An 'Early 100' message was received from the aircraft at 15-30 hrs (presumably code for a request for a bearing), but after that nothing further was heard, and eventually the aircraft and crew were posted as 'missing'.
The crew of the aircraft were:- Sgt. A. J. Hill (A/C Capt.), Sgt. T. A. Lyke (2nd Pilot), Sgt. J. H. Cooper, Sgt. B. A. Hatfield, Sgt. E. P. Smith and Sgt. L. S. Harrington.
Due to no bodies being recovered, as the aircraft went down into the sea, the crew are remembered at the RAF Memorial at the Runnymeade Commonwealth War Graves Commission site, as well as the RAF Stornoway Memorial and RAF Stornoway Book of Remembrance.
This was the only aircraft lost by 58 Sqn. during their stay at Stornoway between August and December 1942. 58 Sqn., along with its sister squadron 502, returned to Stornoway in 1944, flying Halifax aircraft, conducting anti-shipping missions off the Danish and Norwegian coasts - see '502 Sqn. Stornoway 1944 - 45' article above and 'Loss of Halifax HR686 - The Real Story' below).
The D/F station at South Dell was set up to give navigational help to aircraft of Trans-Atlantic Ferry Command, and we (in the 10 months I was there, March 1941 to Feb. 1942) never had a call from a Stornoway based aircraft. Up to the entry of the USA into the war, all our W/T traffic was with ferry aircraft and training aircraft from Lossiemouth. The ferry aircraft mostly flew across in one 'hop'. When the US Army Air Corps (USAAC) flew to the UK, its route was mainly US / Canada / Newfoundland / Greenland / Iceland / Stornoway / Prestwick and then to England. We dealt with their requests for bearings after they had left Iceland. Initially, the aircraft were B-17 and B-24 bombers, and later P-38 Lightning fighters. We were given lists of call-signs every morning for the Americans, and were confused one day to be given P-38 call-signs, stated as being 'escorted' by B-17s. This was explained by the fact that the P-38s only had short-range R/T (Radio Telephony) radios and no long-range W/T (Wireless Telegraphy) equipment, and so for navigational purposes, the fighters were 'escorted' by the bombers, which communicated with us via W/T, and with the fighters via R/T.
There was a civilian airliner which flew into Stornoway every day (except Sundays). This was operated by Scottish Airways, and moved official mail, high value and urgent items and personnel between the islands and the mainland. The aircraft used was a DeHavilland Rapide, the pilot of which had an artificial leg, like Douglas Bader. It was said that the flight missed only one day in 12 months of operations. If any passengers lived in Harris, to the south of the island, it was often arranged for the aircraft to land on the beach there, to save him/her the journey from Stornoway.
The Scottish Airways Rapide aircraft at Stornoway 1941, which operated to and from the mainland daily
The duties at South Dell were long and arduous, 72 hours a week, but to our knowledge, not a single aircraft we communicated with was lost. The main difficulty was that, because we had to hear aircraft far out into the Atlantic, the volume on the radios had to be high all the time. This meant the operator was assailed by loud static and other 'traffic' all the time, the result, I developed partial deafness within a few years of demob, and have worn two hearing-aids for over 40 years. I'm not grumbling, we had a job to do, others had far worse to put up with.
With Lewis's strict observance of the Sabbeth, when the billeting officer tried to find billets in South Dell, the first question asked of him was, 'Wii the airmen 'work' the wireless on the Sabbeth'? When he replied yes, because the Germans didn't respect the Sabbeth, that was usually the end of the search! The RAF rented No. 25 South Dell, a single-storey 3-room stone cottage, with rusty corrugated tin roof. We did not have a trained cook, but our GD AC2 managed very well on two iron bars across an open fire. Our toilet was a sentry box with a door on it, containing a bucket! In fact we were told most residents used the byre, we were one of only 3 houses with a seperate toilet. Like everyone else, our water supply was from a spring on the croft. Finding a dead rabbit in it one day put us off, so we used rainwater off the roof (on which seagulls roosted), so we always boiled it. It was of course the same for everyone, but a shock for some of the city boys! To their credit, they took it in their stride, and indeed there was hardly any sickness, and in general we were a happy bunch.
In my time, I did not hear any resentment about our working Sundays, and expect it soon became accepted as a necessary evil. Without exception, I found the locals friendly, and many very hospitable. I was warned however that many local girls wanted to get away, so Iet it be known I was married! One incident showed how difficult it was for locals. We could send our laundry to Stornoway, but it was not very reliable, so some of us paid to have it done in South Dell. I noticed my clothes had a few darns and patches after a while, all carefully done. We discovered why when, one day we came across women slapping the clothes on the rocks of a stream as part of the washing process! When my wife and I visited South Dell 45 years later, it was very pleasing to see the improved amenities and services.
At the end of my time on Lewis, the usual procedure was to get a mainland posting. In my case however, the Signals section was asked to find 8 W/Ops to go to Canada, and I was one. On my rounds to clear the station however, I was told by the SWO, 'You think you are going to Canada don't you? Well, you're not'. I had already been ear-marked to undertake a course at the Science Museum in London. What a contrast to the healthy fresh air of Lewis. At the end of the course, I was recommended to become an instructor at Cranwell. When I turned this down, stating I had volunteered for Air/Sea Rescue (ASR) duties, the Signals Officer said, 'Airman, you are a bloody fool'. I ended up serving 3 years in ASR, including going over to Normandy the night before the D-Day landings. I have never regretted being a 'bloody fool'.
'How I Learnt To Fly'
(Submitted by Peter Avis)
Earlier this year, I had the pleasure to meet and talk to Vic Gardner, when he visited my place of work while on holiday on Lewis. Vic had trained as a pilot during WWII, and he very kindly agreed to come along to 1731 Sqn. ATC to give the Cadets a most absorbing talk on his experiences. The following is a transcript of his reminiscences.
'I volunteered for aircrew as soon as I was 17 and a quarter, and in those days a simple local medical was given to volunteers for all three Services. After a short delay, I was called to attend a selection board at Oxford. Two of us from my home town (Winchester) arrived and, with about 20 others, were given tests on maths, general knowledge and English. Then sent off to our billets, we were told to report back next morning. When assembled, we were told successful applicants would undergo a full aircrew medical. The names were read out and the first six told they had failed. My name was next and I was told, 'Passed, go upstairs for a hearing test.' I passed through a series of tests until the final one. The mercury test was a killer. A column of mercury had to be blown up a tube to a red line and held there for at least a minute. I don't know if it was a lung test or a test of determination, but to me it was the highest hurdle of the course!
After a visit to the selection board, I was told I had been selected for pilot training and sworn in. Given the rank of AC2, a service number and told I would be called up when I was 18 and a quarter. Bang on the day, I received my call up and reported to the Aircrew Reception Centre (ACRC) at Lord's cricket ground in London. The 3 weeks I spent at the ACRC went in a blur of medicals, vaccinations, blood tests and tests on maths and morse. I left with 40 others, for No. 11 Initial Training Wing (ITW) at Scarborough. Our billet for the next 20 weeks was the Prince of Wales Hotel, four floors up and 3 to a room. The lift was not for cadets, so anything forgotten meant a quick belt up 4 flights of stairs! A typical day would be; 6am reveille, with cleaning and bed-packs, breakfast (if time) and inspections and drill between 7-30 and 9. Training from 9 to 12-30, with lunch, then more training to 5-30pm, and tea at 6. We were expected to 'volunteer' for evening classes between 7-30 and 9pm.
With ITW over, and LAC's props. on my sleeve, I was posted to Brough, 15 miles west of Hull. Here, we were given our flying kit, helmet, goggles, gauntlets and flying boots. Split into 3 groups, we were introduced to our flying instructors and the Tiger Moths we were to fly. We all got to fly 1 hour's familarisation. Being winter and, having just 12 hours flying to show our worth, we needed good weather to make each hour count. The Tiger Moth was easy to fly and we were expected to make a gliding three point landing about a quarter way down the field. There could be 6 or 7 others trying the same thing and near misses were quite common. As my sixth hour approached, I was not that sure I was going to make the grade but, when we landed my instructor said to me, 'Don't shut down, go and do one on your own.' I was half-way through the flight before it really struck me that I was soloing, but training paid off and I managed to land and return the plane to the flight line in one piece. When I said goodbye to my instructor at the end of the course, he said he had recommended me for pilot training. I went on 3 weeks leave walking on air!
Vic Gardner receiving his 'Wings'
Part of my pilot training took place in Canada, and it was during this that I got my first real scare. Nearing the end of our course, 3 of us had to complete the final exercise of airborne navigation. This involved a solo cross country flight of 4 legs, each roughly of 120 miles. The overall distance was close to the maximum range of the aircraft (Cessna Bobcat), so this meant accurate navigation and fuel management. As a safety measure, the third turning point was over an airdrome so, if a student didn't think he could make the return leg, he had somewhere to land.
Cessna Bobcat aircraft similar to that flown by Vic Gardner in Canada
At the briefing, we were told what features to observe at the turning points, to prove we had reached and identified the turning points. We were told the weather would be good, but snow was forecast for the following day. So that we didn't cheat and follow each other, we took off 5 minutes apart. I was number three and about 40 miles behind number one. The first turning point I identified with no problem, except I had arrived earlier than expected, while not cause for loss of marks, it showed my navigation was at fault or the wind speed had changed. I decided to stick to my flight plan. Due to the barren country, it was almost half-way along the second leg before I could fix my position and see I was off track. I was then sure the wind was twice as strong as forecast. At this point it started to snow! To stay in sight of the ground, I had to fly below my safety level. I decided to forget the second turning point and headed in the direction of the airdrome at the third turning point.
By this time, flying the plane was a heavy workload, trying to work out courses and times was more than I could cope with. I did know the airdrome was close to a railway line running north to south so, by flying west, I should cross it and be able to follow it to the airdrome. I worked out a rough time I should see the railway, but that time came and went, with no sign.
Low flying was not only hazardous, but it used more fuel, so I climbed through the cloud. As I broke through the cloud, I saw the Rocky Mountains. As I was flying parallel to them, it gave me a glimmer of hope. I still had two big problems, the first was I had 40 minutes of fuel left, the second was coming down through the clouds again. If the cloud base was lower than when I came up through it, I could hit ground before I could react, plus I was near the city of Calgary, with many tall buildings. I had to get below the cloud to fix my position so really had no choice. At the time I knew my chances of survival were low and thought in a few minutes I could be dead.
As I came out of the cloud, into the snow storm, I saw what I thought was a flat field ahead, so prepared to crash land. At the last minute I saw the 'field' was a dam and, I knew the dam was only a few miles from my base. In a few minutes I was able to land safely on the airfield I had left earlier that day. Now that I was down and the engines switched off, the reaction hit me, my hands were shaking and my knees were trembling. Walking to the crew room, I met my flight commander who asked how I got back. I said dead reckoning. He replied, 'Son, with your luck, you will surely be around to draw your pension.'
'Life With The Red Arrows' (Part 3)
(By Bruce Hudson)
Part 3 of my RAF saga begins in September 1970. Having completed the 1970 season with the Red Arrows, it was now my turn to re-join the real air force. At the end of September, I was posted to join 208 Squadron, flying Hunter FGA.9s from RAF Muharraq, on the island of Bahrain in the Persian/Arabian Gulf.
I joined the VC10 at Brize Norton and arrived in Bahrain in the early hours of the following day. Stepping out onto the apron that night it was hot and humid, and we were bused off to transit accommodation for a few hours sleep before reporting to Station HQ to go through arrival preocedures.
208 Squadron were away on exercise, so once accommodation was sorted, there wasn't much to do for a few days, apart from creating a 'Goes Homie Chart'. 1st October and away to join the squadron at Sharjah, down the coast of Arabia, on a 114 Squadron Argosy, and at the end of the month, to Masirah for live firing on the ranges there.
RAF Argosy aircraft used in the Gulf
On return to Muharraq, I soon settled down to the regular training flights, line maintenance, guard duties, etc. Come Christmas, all the units on the station took part in a billet bar competition. This meant one of the squadron's huts had to be evacuated to make way for the bar. As 208 Squadron had its origins in a naval squadron, it was decided to replicate a 1850's warship, complete with cannon. Large quantities of wood were reuired for this project, and given the Persian Gulf was not noted for its forests, the sources of the wood acquired is best left lost in the mists of time. However, the efforts were worth it, as it turned out well and we won the station competition, more beer being the prize!
The squadron was operationally deployed to Sharjah on one occasion in support of the Trucial Oman Scouts, who were raiding a village believed to contain hostiles. On another occasion, while at Sharjah, I flew in a Shackleton MR.2, and went on range firing in the squadron Hunter T.7 two-seater. The only other highlights were Red Flag operations whenever the Russian fleet entered the Gulf from time to time. Then we would get called out in the early hours and fly continuously for the rest of the day.
208 Squadron Hunter FGA.9 at RAF Muharraq
'Lukfree' (2 weeks leave in the UK) was always looked forward to, as was the daily arrival of the 'Moonrocket' (VC10), to take the lucky ones home.
Towards the end of my tour, 208 Squadron was disbanded, so I spent a brief period with 84 Squadron, working on Andover aircraft, before my return to the UK.
RAF Andover aircraft
As the end of tour approaches, you are asked to choose where you would like to be posted on return to the UK (with little prospect of RAF Innsworth granting said wish). I put down to return to the Red Arrows (some hope) or 71 MU Bicester, the mobile salvage and recovery unit, which I got. However, while I was on disembarkation leave, I went and visited the Team and in fact got my posting changed and re-joined the Aerobatic Team in October 1971.
Back on the Red Arrows, once the Winter Servicing was complete, the Team's training began with 2 or 3 sorties a day, five days a week, gradually building up the formation.
The long talked about visit to the USA was at last to happen this year, codenamed 'Operation Longbow'. The principle problem had always been the Gnat's short range. There had been suggestions in the past to put the aircraft on a R.N. carrier (we still had them then) or, with wingtips removed, the Gnat would fit inside a Galaxy C-5A of the USAF. But, having another Service helping out wasn't acceptable to the RAF.
The Red Arrows aircraft had originally been modified to allow smoke generation. Part of this mod. segregated two 14 gallon saddle tanks in the rear fuselage to take diesel to create the white smoke. Therefore, a new modification, to allow these tanks to be re-connected into the main fuel system for the transit, and then back again to diesel for the shows, was incorporated. Twenty-eight gallons made all the difference. To ensure no contamination of the fuel supply to the engine, all the diesel now had to be filtered.
The trip began with the transit from Kemble to Stornoway on 15 May. The ground crew were split up between several B & B's in town, and I stayed with Mrs. and Miss MacLeod, 8 Newton Street. Several of the guys, after a night out in the town, and wanting to return to their accommodation, would tell the taxi driver they were staying at Mrs. MacLeod's, which didn't really help!
The overall operation was big, with 10 Gnats, two C-130 Hercules, two Vulcans (one as a weather ship and the other for communications relay) and a Nimrod for ASR cover. The Team stayed at the US bases at Keflavik, Iceland and Sonderstrom, Greenland en-route. The next step was Frobisher Bay, where we were supposed to transit through to RAF Goose Bay. However, one of the Gnats had a low engine oil pressure light on start-up, and it was decided to change the engine as a precaution. So the Team all departed leaving a small group, including myself, to work overnight on the change. The outside temperature was -40C, but we managed to slip into a corner of the hangar to do the work. The next morning, a Hercules returned with a pilot to pick us up and complete the trip to Goose Bay.
From then on the trip went well, with shows in Canada and the US. The big event was at Transpo. '72, and the opening of the new Dulles International Airport at Washington D.C. We arrived back from the USA one month later. The rest of the year was a bit of an anti-climax but nonetheless varied and interesting.
In 1973 I remained on the Team and became a member of the Flying Circus again, flying in the No. 8 position. Before the season started, the Team flew in formation for the first time with Concorde, which was then being test flown from nearby Fairford. I was fortunate to be able to go on this sortie, but we were not allowed to take cameras with us. Being No. 8 and in the far right position of the Team's V-formation, I could see Concorde as she nosed into position over my left shoulder.
The Red Arrows and Concorde in formation 1973
Later in the year saw us in Portugal and, during a low level transit between Lisbon and Porto, one aircraft had a birdstrike. The fact that the bird happened to be sitting in its nest at the time was again allowed to be lost in the mists of time! I once again was left behind with a small team to carry out structual repairs and engine change. By the time the spares arrived, and the Gnat was serviceable, the aircraft's liquid oxygen (Lox) had evaporated. This then entailed a very slow and long journey to fill our Lox container at an industrial site. Eventually, a C-130 arrived with a pilot and took us home, fifteen days after the incident. The remainder of the year passed uneventfully, with several other overseas trips.
Come the end of the 1973 season, I decided to leave the RAF for a career in civil aviation. During my 5 years on the Team, I had 286 flights in the Gnat, totalling some 159 hours, and including 39 show sequences in the back seat.
I left the RAF in October 1973 and went onto join Hawker Siddeley (later BAe) at Hatfield (home of de Havilland), and was involved with the HS125 executive jet, and the BAe146 airliner, until I retired in October 1998.
For someone who was always interested in aviation, I consider myself very lucky and enjoyed almost every minute of my career.
'RAF Stornoway - Where's That?'
(By Robin Hudson)
The title of this article is exactly the question I asked when I received my posting to RAF Stornoway in 1976. I was at the time serving at RAF North Luffenham, Rutland, Lincolnshire, and had expected for some time to be posted away, possibly overseas, well that bit was right, but not quite where I expected!
As was usual, I had to 'clear' North Luffenham by going around various sections and getting them to sign me off. The main stop was General Office where, having at last found out where RAF Stornoway was, and roughly how to get there, I needed to organise travel. The clerk I spoke to didn't know where Stornoway was either, and so had to consult the 'big book of rules' how one arranged travel there. It appeared I would travel to Inverness by train and then fly to Stornoway. Lurking in the background had been a grizzled old Warrant Officer, listening to the proceedings. Upon hearing that an airman would be flying to a UK posting, he came forward blustering that, 'Only officers are allowed to travel by air?' But, once he had read the regulations, he retreated grumbling, and the travel warrants were issued.
The journey went fine, and I eventually found myself at Inverness Airport awaiting the British Airways flight to Stornoway. In those days, the aircraft used was the Vickers Viscount and, having boarded, I was swiftly whisked away across the Minch to Stornoway, overseas indeed!
British Airways Vickers Viscount serving the Inverness - Stornoway route
Upon arrival, I was picked-up by a couple of the lads from RAF Stornoway, and transported the short distance to the units buildings in a Landrover. As 1976 was a very hot and dry summer, and it was the first year the term 'drought' had been used to describe the hosepipe bans in place on the mainland, one of the first things said to me was, 'There's no drought here', something I came to realise as I got used to the prevailing weather conditions on the islands.
The main unit at Stornoway was 112 SU (Signals Unit) although, as the MoD still owned the airfield at that time, the station was called RAF Stornoway. The airfield was used as the commercial airport for the islands, but still occasionally hosted RAF and NATO aircraft, such as regular visits by RAF Varsity training aircraft on navigational exercises. It's strange how they always seemed to leave carrying many crates of smoked kippers!
RAF Stornoway (112 SU) from the air
112 SU was housed completely at that time in the large 2-storey building on the corner of the main Stornoway and Melbost/Branahuie/Airport roads. This building housed both accommodation and some of the technical equipment. The technical side was split between the 'Ground Radio' and 'Air Radio' sections. I had been posted to the Ground Radio section.
Me in the Ground Radio workshop
There were about 40 odd personnel at RAF Stornoway, roughly equally split between the two technical sections plus admin., catering and 1 M/T SNCO. It made for a very close knit community. The Ground Radio section looked after the radios, airfield navigational aids and a mysterious 'monster' radio transmitter at a remote site on the west coast of the island called Aird Uig. This site had once, during the late 1950s/early 1960s, been an established RAF station called RAF Aird Uig, used as a major radar site, part of the early warning defences of this country, although very few people know about it these days. Two of us technicians from the Ground Radio section would be on duty at Aird Uig continously for 2 days at a stretch, each relief shift driving out to the site with enough supplies for their shift. Being so remote, and perched on top of high, windswept cliffs, overlooking the, at times, wild Atlantic Ocean, it could get quite spooky at night with just the two of you in a large building buffeted by gale-force winds! Most of us liked these shifts however as, apart from any routine servicing or faults to be fixed, it was a relaxed duty. We cooked for ourselves and there was a TV room and snooker table to pass the time. In good weather, the views were fantastic and it was fascinating exploring the dilapidated buildings of the old RAF station.
Some of the lads on the Ground Radio section
One incident that occurred at Aird Uig whilst I and another guy were on duty there sticks in my memory. We were relaxing one evening when the alarm, signalling a fault with the equipment , sounded. This got us rushing along to the equipment hall to find the 'monster' had shut itself down due to a fault with a major component. This component, which was enclosed within a compressed-gas compartment, had leaked its gas and needed re-filling. A cylinder of gas was kept on site for just such a job as topping-up the pressure. Neither of us had done such a job before, indeed no-one on the unit had even seen or worked on this euipment prior to coming to Stornoway. However, we got the technical books out and worked out the procedure for topping-up the gas, which involved attaching an adaptor to connect the gas cylinder. As we attached the adaptor, it somehow blew loose and shot across the room with the speed and force of a bullet! Luckily, neither of us were in the way at the time, if we had I think it would have done some serious damage! We managed to re-attach it and re-filled the gas, getting the 'monster' back on-line. I swear that thing had an evil mind.
The watch building at Aird Uig
At the unit in Stornoway we had very good relations with the locals, whom I found from the start to be very friendly on the whole. It made a real difference when I started going out with a local girl, whom I subsequently married, and got to know many more locals and members of her family. With her living just down the road from the unit, it was really quite convenient.
When I first looked Lewis up on a map, it only showed a small part of the west-coast mainland and so I didn't get a proper feel for the size of the islands. Added to that, an uncle of mine had visited the weapons range at Benbecula on North Uist, just down the chain of islands which make up the Western Isles, and had said how remote it was. So, I had sold my car before posting, thinking incorrectly, that there would be few, if any, roads. Having realised my mistake, I bought a second-hand car locally, a Hillman Husky, the 'estate' version of the Hillman Imp. It did fine as a run-about, with a bit of cajoling.
One new experience it transported me to was peat cutting. My then fiance and her family, as many people on the islands still did then, went out to peat banks and cut a supply of peat which, once dried, were burned as fuel, and would last them through the winter months. This involved several trips, over a couple of months, to first cut the peats from the ground and stack them to dry naturally. Then return to bag them for transport home by tractor and trailer, and finally stack them for use during the winter, without the rain penetrating and ruining them, this was an art in itself. Each exercise had its fair share of skill needed. My little buggy even at times coped with transporting four people and several bags of peats!
We finally got married (holding the reception in the unit mess), and initially moved into a house a short distance away from the unit in the village of Aignish, in Point, then into the newly built houses on the Cearns housing scheme in Stornoway, some of which had been allocated as RAF married quarters. In the mantime, I had been promoted from J/T (Junior Tech.) to Corporal.
Another incident I remember well occurred about this time, also revolving around the site at Aird Uig. I had been appointed in charge of Aird Uig and we needed to get some replacement items of furniture from Stornoway to Uig. As a small unit, Stornoway only had Landrovers and Ford Escort estate cars for transport so, it was arranged to borrow the local TA's Bedford four and a half ton lorry. Our Storeman at the time, Peter Davis, was the only one on the unit who held an RAF licence to drive the Bedford so, one morning, he and I and a load of furniture set-off in the lorry to go to Uig. The route in those days consisted of many miles of single-track road, with passing places which, when driving a large, unfamiliar vehicle, needed considerable concentration to navigate. The journey progressed well until we got to virtually within sight of Aird Uig camp. The approach road was a, typical for the time, narrow single-track road, leading down a steep incline to a bridge over a river into the hamlet of Aird Uig. On one side was a sheer drop into the river valley, and on the other side was an irrigation ditch. Somehow, the lorry verged too close to the ditch and the right-hand front wheel lodged in the ditch, like a train on rails. Before Peter could get the lorry stopped, we hit a larger boulder in the ditch, which brought us to an instant halt! Shaken, but unhurt, we climbed out to inspect the damage, and damage there was! It was obvious, even to the untrained eye, that the lorry was going nowhere without assistance plus, it was blocking the road into Aird Uig. While I stayed with the vehicle, Peter walked to the nearest house to get help and phone Stornoway to tell them of our plight and get assistance. He returned, riding on a tractor, with one of the locals, and we were able to drag the lorry out of the ditch and to a place we could park it without blocking the road. Eventually, the TA arranged to recover the lorry, but they were not very happy with us for bending it! (Re-reading this, it makes me sound something of a Jonah).
AOC's Parade, RAF Stornoway style 1977. Who's that smart airman second from right?
I really enjoyed my posting to Lewis, so much so that 6 years later we came back to live here, and I'm still here 28 years later. As most of those posted to RAF Stornoway didn't volunteer, they fell into two distinct groups once here. Either they grew to like the quiet, easygoing way of life or, they missed the hustle and bustle and facilities offered by the mainland way of life. I definitely was one of the former group.
There is so much more I could write of my time at RAF Stornoway, such as the 'official' duty of tending the unit bar, or trying to beat the unofficial fastest time to do the drive to Aird Uig. But time and space don't allow, so I must end somewhere, and this is it.
'Memories of RAF Aird Uig'
(By Harvey 'Ginge' Currie)
I have been asked by my good friend Roddy Moffat to relate some of my memories of serving at RAF Aird Uig, on the Isle of Lewis, so here goes.
In August 1959, I was stationed at RAF Buchan, near Peterhead, Abedeenshire, when a Flight Sgt. handed me an envelope with my name on, and said, 'It's a PWR Ginge'. 'Oh', says I, 'Hon Kong or Singapore'? But no, I was being posted to the Isle of Lewis, and so began my 18 months posting. I suppose I did request an overseas posting, but the Isle of Lewis! So began a memorable escapade.
How do you get there? RAF Buchan to Aberdeen, train to Inverness, another train to Kyle of Lochalsh and then by MacBrayne steamer. The 'Loch Seaforth' was waiting for the next leg of the journey to Stornoway, where we were picked-up by an RAF truck and taken for a one and a half hour drive to RAF Aird Uig. Here, we were billeted, fed and had a good nights sleep. Next morning, in daylight, it was time to have a look at the camp and its surrounds. As luck would have it, the weather was fine and the sea was calm, and it all looked fine. But what's that they say about the calm before the storm?
Next day, after reporting to the various areas, I discovered a regular RAF bus run to Stornoway, regular was Wednesday at 5pm, Saturday at 12-30pm. There was dancing at the YMCA on Wednesday, and in the Stornoway Town Hall on Saturday, with occasional bands and concerts at Shawbost Hall.
Although Aird Uig was 38 miles from Stornoway, there was always the odd car or motorcycle going to town. I can remember one time getting a lift with the ration wagon after finishing the midnight shift, so that myself and a chap called Alex Scott managed to get to the Post Office in town to get a bet on horses that were racing on the mainland. We used to go to Mac's Bar and the County Hotel in Stornoway, where lots of RAF personnel would gather before going to the dancing.
RAF Aird Uig had a skiffle group, our answer to Lonnie Donnigan. It started as a guiter, tea box bass and wash board. The wash board was sent up by a member's mother. It arrived brand spanking new, only trouble was it was a glass one instead of tin. The drums were well past their best, so a new set was bought by Scotty Graham. Brian Cairns had a double bass which broke in half when shipped back to the mainland. The guitar was a Framus acoustic, and our singer was Taffy Jenkins, who used to render his version of 'Running Bear' better than any profesional. Archie Galbraith loaned his voice to polish-off the vocals. We had two saxophone players, Fred Blakey and Brian Ramsbottom, and a young trumpet player called Peter. The group had a few engagements for dances and weddings. Alas, after several months, the members were posted to other RAF stations and the skiffle group ceased to exist.
We had a new C/O who wanted the camp to be spick and span. After much moaning and groaning, the camp was cleaned up and nearly everyone took to the NAFFI in silent protest and drank about a month's supply of McEwan's Wee Heavies. As the night went on, the Skiffle Group came to life and, by the time the Orderly Corporal came round at 10pm to lock up, most of the airmen had retired for the night and all the fuss about the cleaning was forgotten. There was also the time the Post Office roof at Marvig was on fire. It all happened at 12-15pm on a Saturday when lunch was finished and the busload of off-duty personnel were ready to go to Stornoway. The C/O, Sqn. Ldr. Christopher, came into the airmen's mess and said to get the fire engine out, Marvig PO is on fire. Well, nobody believed him, it was Saturday! Anyway, the fire crew extinguished the fire and the fire crew got a free bottle of beer each.
The station had a dance at Stornoway Town Hall. A new C/O issued orders for us all to wear No. 1 Dress uniforms instead of civvies. A few airmen took exception to this and started a short tie club, whereby everyone cut off the bottom of their ties. Quite amusing, airmen all dressed-up with half their tie missing!
Aird Uig had the privilege of having swimming holes in the rocks, not far from the camp. Valtos beach was just over an hours walk over the hill, with a superb long beach that was totally isolated.
Motorcycles were quite common and a few airmen, who lived off camp in Stornoway and Harris, used these as a means of getting to and from camp.
The food at Aird Uig was very good, even though mutton was the staple diet. I never heard of any complaints. Most Saturdays we had dinner in the White Restaurant in the town square. For 6 shillings, you could buy an excellent mixed grill. Sometimes, after Town Hall dancing on a Saturday, there was a chip caravan there, with a steady line-up of customers having a feed before getting the bus back to camp. As the bus got underway, there would be a big sing-song, which eventually stopped as people fell asleep. Everyone had to be out of Stornoway by 11-45pm as it was Sunday the next day.
In 1960, it was proposed to hold a flypast over the camp to mark Remembrance Day. Three Gloster Javelins were to perform the low-level flypast. The personnel paraded on the square, and we could hear the Javelins approaching and then fade away again. The story was that it was too foggy for them to find the camp! We got used to the occasional 'buzz' by Hawker Hunters from RAF Leuchars, 430 Sqn., I think.
There was the time when a visiting soccer team from RAF Saxa Vord, in the Shetland Isles, flew into Stornoway to play a 'friendly' game against us. I don't remember the score, but I do remember the Saxa Vord goalie got his leg broken!
The operators (ADOs) worked a shift that was possibly the best in the RAF, with a crew of 8 operators per shift and 4 shifts. We used to do 3 person per shift, with 2 days on and 1 day off, then 2 days on and 3 off, with 3 ADOs on nights and at weekends. This gave lots of time off and the roster was used as additional leave.
On the midnight shift, from 11-30pm to 08-30am, with only 3 ADOs on duty, we had a sleeping shift, i.e. 11-30 to 01-30, then 01-30 to 06-30 and finally, 06-30 to 08-30. The ADO who finished his watch at 06-30 would make tea or coffee and biscuits, then go down to the billets and wake the shift that started at 08-30am. We were issued with PVC hats, oilskins, heavy seasocks and wellies!
On one of our jaunts into Stornoway, wee Alex Scott and myself, landed lucky at the bookies and won £22. I used mine to buy an old Matchless motorbike from another ADO, George Banks, who still lives in Harris. One day I went with George on a stretch of road that I was not familiar with on the way to Harris. When I came to the Achmore turn-off, I went straight ahead but George turned off. I finally stopped in a foot deep of peat, George thought I had gone down a road he did not know.
Do you believe in ghosts? On a return trip to camp, with about half the distance covered, I was sitting up front besides Georgie the driver, when he yelled out, 'What the hell's that'! In front of us was a ghostly figure of a woman skipping along the road dressed in night attire. 'Better stop', I said. 'Not bloody likely' from Georgie, was followed by an increase in speed. It turned out that the so called 'ghost' was in fact Lady Perrins, who lived in a large hunting lodge and who reputedly liked a tipple and had popped out to enjoy the night air!
Uig Sands was our rugby field and, with prevailing winds, you could kick a ball about half a mile! The soccer players used Goathill pitch in town. I remember playing the local High School, the Nicolson Institute, and getting thrashed by the pupils during a heavy storm. I don't remember there being any cricket games though! Fond memories.
'Loss of Halifax HR686 - The Real Story'
(By Robin Hudson)
Halifax HR686 of 502 Sqn. lost on 3/4 October 1944
Isn't the internet a wonderful thing - this may seem a strange way to start an article dedicated to an event which occurred in 1944, but it was through information gained, and contacts made via the internet, that this article came to be written. Readers may remember the article in the last RAFA Stornoway Newsletter (1/2011) which highlighted the donation to the Branch of a die-cast model of Halifax HR686 of 502 Sqn. by member Bruce Hudson. The real HR686 was lost on its 100th and last operational mission from Stornoway on 4th October 1944. Of the 9 crew aboard, thankfully 5 survived, to become POWs until wars end, but were able to later tell their story of this fateful mission. Unfortunately, the other 4 crew were lost, and are remembered in the RAF Stornoway 'War Dead' section of this website and the RAF Stornoway Book of Remembrance. In an attempt to correlate these missing crew members with aircraft lost, I did some research on the internet and came across quite a bit of information on this particular aircraft.
The bulk of the information which forms this article came from the first-hand account of the pilot of HR686 on that last flight, Patrick McManus. Patrick, a very active 91 year old, lives in Ontario, Canada and was awarded the DFC for his actions during the early hours of 4th October 1944 when the aircraft was lost. His son Paul, saw the item on HR686 on the RAFA Stornoway website and got in touch, very kindly supplying a copy of Patrick's reminiscences of his wartime career and capture.
HR686 LAST FLIGHT
Handley Page Halifax GR.II, RAF serial HR686, code letter 'J', was on the strength of 502 Sqn. when it moved to RAF Stornoway in September 1944 from RAF St. Davids in South Wales. The squadron had undertaken anti-submarine operations from there, mainly over the Bay of Biscay area, as part of RAF Coastal Command. On their arrival at Stornoway, they would be carrying out anti-submarine and anti-shipping sorties over the waters around Norway and Denmark, in the sea areas known as the Kattegat and Skaggarak.
Initially, these operations were conducted during daylight hours, but fairly quickly became night-time sorties. So it was that Halifax HR686 'J' of 502 Sqn. and its crew were detailed to undertake its 100th and last operation on the night of 3rd/4th October 1944. HR686 was to be retired from operational use and probably sent to a training unit as, although still combat capable, it was showing signs of wear and tear.
For this final mission, the normal crew of F/O P. J. McManus (Capt.), F/O A. L. Lyttle (2nd Pilot), F/O I. E. Osbourne (Eng.), Sgt. R. G. Allen (Nav.), Flt. Lt. S. A. Winchester (AG/Wop.), F/O H. T. Conlin (AG/Wop.), F/O J. A. R. L. LaPalme (AG/Wop.) and Flt. Sgt. C. McLaughlin (AG/Wop.) would be joined by the 502 Sqn. C/O Wg. Cmdr. C. A. Maton, who unusually, was an Air Gunner (AG) and was due to be posted away to a desk job at Coastal Command HQ.
At the briefing for the mission, the Met. forecast gave the weather conditions as cold, wet and windy, not unexpected for October in that part of the world! The mission would be a 'Rover' patrol, meaning the crew were free to attack any enemy vessels sighted in the patrol area. Intelligence indicated that the Germans were endeavouring to move men and material from Norway to Europe to bolster their defences following the Allied invasion of Europe in June. These movements were being undertaken under cover of darkness. Also, enemy night-fighters could be expected in the area!
With all preparations complete, the crew went out to the aircraft, which was fully loaded with depth charges and a full load of fuel, sufficient for over 12 hours of flying. It was already raining when they took-off at 23-08hrs. on 3rd October 1944.
On such long endurance flights, the Air Gunner/Wireless Ops. (AG/Wop.) would frequently swop positions between the two turrets, wireless and radar positions. So it was on this flight. After testing their guns, everyone settled down for the long transit to the operational area off the Norwegian and Danish coasts.
The main tool used to search for targets was the radar, housed in a blister under the belly of the aircraft, just aft of the bomb-bay. The radar would also give 'returns' from rain and snow showers, as it did on this mission, which made identifying a real target more difficult. However, with practice, these real 'returns' could be distinguished from the phantom ones. Once in the patrol area, the crew commenced their search pattern, until a call came from the radar operator, 'Contact 05 degrees starboard at 18 miles'. This contact looked promising and they set course to intercept. Speed was increased and altitude reduced in an effort to visually identify the target. Eventually, they broke through the clouds and there, dead ahead, they saw a ship on fire! It was obvious the ship had already been attacked and was sinking, so they aborted their attack and climbed away.
Returning to their search pattern, a while passed, when suddenly another call from the radar operator stated, 'Contact port 25 degrees, 15 miles'. Again the attack routine took over, with increase in speed and loss of height, swinging onto the new heading, looking for the target. Breaking through the cloud at about 800 feet, there in front was a ship which appeared to be brightly lit, usually an indication it was a neutral vessel. Breaking off the attack, and beginning to swing away, it was only then realised that the 'lights' were in fact the muzzle flashes from numerous guns on the ship all firing at the aircraft! This barrage of fire hit the aircraft as it turned away, setting the port inner engine on fire and causing damage to other parts of the aircraft. The captain, Patrick McManus realised the aircraft was doomed and told the crew to prepare for a ditching at sea. Wrestling with the controls, helped by co-pilot Larry Lyttle, they managed to keep the aircraft fairly level as it hit the sea, but any contact was going to cause massive damage. At the time it was thought all 9 crew members managed to escape the sinking aircraft, via one means or another, and ended up in the rough sea. Unfortunately, the dinghy carried in the port wing, aft of the port inner engine, had been burnt and was useless. Patrick realised their only hope of survival was to get together in a group and so searched around in the water to locate the others. In the dark and rough seas, this was difficult. Eventually, all the survivors who could be located came together but, without the dinghy, it was difficult staying afloat. Then, one of the aircraft's main wheels and tyre was seen floating nearby and they managed to cling to that.
The Haifax main wheel and tyre that helped save the crew
As dawn began to break, and after several hours in the water, they were rescued by the ship that had shot them down (later identified as the 'Amisia'), and the surviving 5 crew members McManus, Lyttle, Osbourne, Winchester and Maton became POWs. Their experiences as POWs is a whole different story and outside the scope of this article.
One thing I did find in doing this research, as is common I'm sure with much historical research, is that for almost every piece of new information you discover, it raises new questions. For instance, in the 502 Sqn. Operational Record Book (ORB), the official squadron diary, the crew list for HR686 for it's final sortie differs from the actual crew who flew her, and yet at the end of the monthly summary for October 1944, it gives the correct crew names as those missing!
Of the 4 crew lost, F/O LaPalme's body was washed ashore near Mandel in Norway, where he is buried. The bodies of the others were never recovered and are remembered at the RAF Memorial at Runnymeade, in the RAF Stornoway Book of Remembrance and RAF Stornoway Memorial, they are F/O H. T. Conlin, Flt. Sgt. C. McLaughlin and Sgt. R. G. Allen. This article is dedicated to those who were lost.
What makes this article possible is the fact that some of the crew survived the war and were able to tell the tale. With many of the losses from 502, and its sister squadron 58 stationed at Stornoway, occurring with no witness, their stories will never be told.
I would like to thank Paul McManus for his help in providing so much information about his father's experiences and what truely happened on that fateful night. Finally, Patrick McManus was presented with his own Corgi die-cast model of HR686 by his family on 4th June 2011, exactly 66 years and 8 months after she was lost, as shown below.
'How an 'Erk' helped make the fortune of Abu Dhabi'
(By Donnie Maviver)
Royal Air Force Sharjah 6th August 1966, Sunday afternoon alone in the Signals Section with week old newspapers spread about, when the door bell goes. Quick look through the peephole showed the Signals Officer and the Station Commander standing outside. A moments hesitation to decide whether there was time to nip back and hide the papers, but commonsense prevailed, and I unlock the door, eager on the one hand, and wary on the other, to find out what had brought the two senior officers on the station to the ComCen on a Sunday afternoon.
A young Donnie Maciver hard at work in Sharjah!
While the door was open, curiously a 3-ton lorry, loaded with armed, whooping and waving Trucial Oman Scouts, sped past heading for the airfield. It was then explained to me that an aircraft (Beverley) was to take off with the Scouts, under British officers and NCOs, and Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, younger brother of the then ruler of Abu Dhabi, and land at the palace in Abu Dhabi and, having already secured the permission of the rest of the Al Nayhan family, remove the incumbent Sheikh and replace him with his younger brother.
My part in all this was to carry out ground-to-air communications with the aircraft for the duration of the operation. This was carried out with much profane language from the aircraft crew, probably as some form of disguise , and not so much from myself, despite a nod of permission from the CO. Not so easy to break the habits of a lifetime and, not that I wasn't prone to the odd profanity myself, but never over the air. The operation was successful, and the aircraft departed in the direction of Bahrain. It was then pointed out to me that no log was to be kept of the events, and that not a word was to be uttered to anyone, Official Sectrets Act etc.
Fast forward to 1971, SHAPE Headquarters Belgium. Married with a little girl and working with all the other NATO personnel, not least the Americans. Sharjah and Abu Dhabi just a memory, when one day during my lunch break, reading the American forces 'Stars and Stripes' newspaper, there was a centre spread feature about how the British helped replace the old Sheikh with his younger brother. Apparently, Abu Dhabi was becoming oil wealthy but the old fellow, set in his ways, was not making use of the wealth for the benefit of the country, so his extended family requested our assistance in replacing him with his forward looking younger brother. A look at Abu Dhabi on Google today is enough to show that the decision was a wise one. The old fellow was flown to Bahrain, then by VC10 to the UK, where he and his family lived in luxury in the English countryside for the rest of his days. The 'erk' lives on.