“Wireless Operators Don’t Fly Duel in Spitfires!”

I first met Sam King when visiting one of my clients and, as so often happens, when the business was concluded I discovered that he was ex-RAF and had a very interesting story to tell. Here he recounts how he almost became airborne in the fuselage of a Spitfire. He goes on to outline his experiences in the RAF during World War II – there’s some revealing anecdotes about living in the desert and having to make do with some supplies that even the Arabs refused. He’ll also enlighten you about what an Australian was just about to do to him with the biggest knife he had ever seen in his life!

This is his story…

Flt. Lt. Sam E. King RAF – BRIEF WARTIME HISTORY
Sam King - Marseilles, France, 1944 aged 22 years

Sam King – Marseilles, France, 1944 aged 22 years

I joined the RAF as a ‘Boy Entrant’ in May 1938 and was trained as a Wireless Operator at RAF Cranwell. Passed out with the rank of Aircraftman 1st Class after training in radio theory, Morse Code operating (up to 30 words minute sending and receiving),semaphore flag signalling, Aldis Lamp signalling and Air Operating.

We did our air operating in old 2-seater biplanes (Westland Wallace and Wapitis). We operated the wireless set sitting on the floor of the rear cockpit and facing the tail a short steel cable anchored to the floor and attached to our parachute harness stopped us from falling out. It was called a ‘Monkey Chain’. We would fly cross-country exercises, and our method of communicating with the pilot was to bang him on the head and pass him a written message. Sometimes he flew above 10,000 feet and it got very cold indeed. We had no oxygen either!

Happy Days.

May 1940 – I left Cranwell and was posted to No.65 East India Fighter Squadron, so called because all of its aircraft were donated by some Indian nabob. I was terribly disappointed to find that it was operating Spitfires Mk2s from RAF Hornchurch. On leaving Cranwell I was hoping to be posted a bomber squadron and fly as aircrew. Anyway, I had to service the wireless sets in the aircraft of ’A’ flight. As I arrived the squadron was heavily involved in constant patrols over the debacle of Dunkirk. Aircraft were badly shot up and we lost a few pilots.

RAF Church Fenton

The Westland Wapiti was a British two-seat general purpose military single-engined biplane of the 1920s. It was designed and built by Westland Aircraft Works to replace the Airco DH.9A in Royal Air Force service. The Wapiti served with distinction as an all purpose warplane and transport. Pilots found the cockpit draughtier than the DH9A but snugger owing to the deeper fuselage. However, rear seat occupants enjoyed no such comfort and had to hang on to the coaming whenever the pilot executed a badly executed loop as the gunner was attached to the floor by a ‘monkey chain’ – he did not have the safety and security of a harness …as the pilot did!

Then the Luftwaffe started daylight raids over London and the docklands. Huge flights of bombers came overhead and we watched the dogfights as our squadron engaged. Then the squadron moved to a small private airfield at Rochford (near Southend) to operate at forward readiness during the Battle of Britain which had just got under way. It was a hairy situation as we got bombed and strafed nearly every day.

We were sleeping in tents near the aircraft, and would dive into slit trenches when attacked. After one attack our tent was riddled with holes from bullets and shrapnel and most of our kit was ruined. On another occasion a Heinkel bomber appeared overhead looking for somewhere to land. He crashed landed in the middle of the airfield and when it came to rest about a dozen of us rushed across to it. But the rear gunner opened up fire on us and we all went flat. But the army were positioned around the field for defence purposes and they opened up on him with Bren guns. He was virtually cut to pieces.

The pilot and navigator managed to stagger out, and the first words he spoke (in English) were “where were the German troops, and had they reached London yet?” He obviously thought the invasion had already started. Spitfires and Hurricanes from all the airfields around London used to land to refuel and re-arm when they couldn’t get back to their own bases. On one occasion a Hurricane landed near us and I climbed up on the fuselage to see if he needed any help. He wasn’t very pleased when I started to help him unbuckle and get out. It happened to be Squadron Leader Douglas Bader and he swore at me and told me to get out of the bloody way.

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader- credited with 20 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. A self centered, breathtakingly rude and highly arrogant man he overcame the loss of both legs to command a Fighter Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Although he did mellow somewhat with age Bader could still be outrageous. At one Luftwaffe reunion in Munich, he looked at his former foes and uttered, “My God, I had no idea we left so many of the bastards alive.”

Group Captain Sir Douglas Robert Steuart Bader- credited with 20 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. A self centered, breathtakingly rude and highly arrogant man he overcame the loss of both legs to command a Fighter Squadron during the Battle of Britain. Although he did mellow somewhat with age Bader could still be outrageous. At one Luftwaffe reunion in Munich, he looked at his former foes and uttered, “My God, I had no idea we left so many of the bastards alive.”

Anyway, we lost a lot of aircraft and pilots during the battle, including our CO. We were at 15 minutes readiness on one occasion and it was my job to check that a clock mechanism which had only one hour duration was fully wound in all our 6 aircraft every hour. It indicated on a dial on the instrument panel marked in red over a 15 second period how much time had passed since the pilot pressed his firing button. On continuous fire the ammunition lasted for only 15 seconds. On this occasion I dropped the lid of the box housing the clock and it went down behind the seat and the armour plating. It had to be retrieved or the clock would have dropped out and disconnected during combat, and the pilot would have no idea of how much ammunition he had left.

The only way normally to recover the lid was to remove the seat and armour plate (a 2 man job). But we were on 15 minutes readiness and could be scrambled at any time. However, there is a small inspection panel about halfway down the fuselage side, and I thought that if I could squeeze in there and pull myself on my stomach towards the front I could find the lid and fix it on. This I managed to do and when I tried to back my way out, to my horror I heard the alarm sound for a scramble – the pilot got in and started the engine but luckily the fitter who was about to pull the chocks away from the wheels spotted my feet sticking out of the fuselage.

He must have frantically waved to the pilot and then got hold of my ankles and helped to pull me out. We closed the panel and waved the pilot off. So I nearly got airborne in the fuselage of a Spitfire. When the battle was finished the airfield was covered in craters and unexploded bombs and the army pioneers did a marvellous job of filling in every day so that that the aircraft could take off and land. It was a grass airfield as there were no runways in those days.

When there was a scramble for all 12 aircraft, they would take off straight from their dispersals round the airfield and be hurtling across the field in all directions at the same time. Luckily there were no collisions. In the September of that year the Squadron moved up to RAF Turnhouse (near Edinburgh) for a rest and re-equip.

Jan 1941 – The Squadron moved south to RAF Tangmere where they took part in fighter sweeps across France and Belgian.

May 1941 – Posted overseas and was kitted out at a transit camp at Wilmslow. We knew we were going to a warm climate as we received pith Helmet and Travelled into Liverpool and went aboard the P&O liner named ‘Empress of India’ which had been converted into a troopship. We were anchored in the middle of the river that night when Liverpool had one of its heaviest air raids. Bombs were dropping in the river around us and on the buildings either side. We felt like sitting ducks and were glad when we sailed in the morning. We joined a fairly large convoy and sailed off into the Atlantic. We suffered 4 U-boat attacks and lost 2 ships. We called into Freetown for refuelling and then onto Durban, where we were in port for 5 days.

Rearming of a Hawker Hurricane at RAF Tangmere, 1940. The turn-around time (re-arm and refuel) for the Spitfire was 26 minutes, while the Hurricane's was 9 minutes, which increased its operational effectiveness

Rearming of a Hawker Hurricane at RAF Tangmere, 1940. The turn-around time (re-arm and refuel) for the Spitfire was 26 minutes, while the Hurricane’s was 9 minutes, which increased its operational effectiveness

We were allowed ashore and the local families (whites) took us into their homes and entertained us. We eventually arrived at Port Said after 5 weeks at sea. During the voyage I carried out signal duties on the bridge helping the merchant navy signalman with flags and lamp. As we entered Port Said the liner ‘Queen Mary’ was just departing out alone. She never went in convoy as her speed was too fast for the U boats. I had to send a message to her on the Aldis Lamp wishing her ‘Good Sailing’ from our Captain. We disembarked and went by troop train up to Aboukir which is near Alexandra.

While we were there the surviving troops from the evacuation of Greece and Crete arrived in a very sorry state. Lots were wounded; they were dishevelled, exhausted, filthy and only had the things they stood up in. They blamed the RAF for not supporting them during the last few days of fighting and the evacuation.

There were very few aircraft in the Middle East at that time, and what were available were outdated and did not have the range. It was a complete debacle. Then we were split up and allocated to different units.

Sam and Mick – Burg-El-Arab

Sam and Mick on a morning start – Burg-El-Arab

I was among those sent up the desert to a place called Burg-El-Arab. There we formed a ‘Mobile Signals Unit’ and were equipped with a motley collection of 3 ton vehicles. We moved back down to a place south of Cairo called Helwan. There we received some more vehicles and set about stripping them down to their chassis and rebuilding the type of bodies we needed for our wireless equipment etc.

We practised erecting and dismantling our aerial masts. There were 70 foot tubular metal ones in sections for the transmitting aerials and 30 foot ones for the receivers. There were also some folded wooden ones fixed on top of the receiving vehicles. We finished up with a motley collection of vehicles which we had to modify and adapt to do the job. There were 3 ton Crossleys, Fords, Humber, Mercedes, 15 cwt vehicles, an Albion water tanker and a Diesel generator to supply power. In all there were some 14 vehicles, and none were made to operate over loose sand.

Travelled back to Cairo, Heliopolis, Ishmalia and set off across the Sinai Desert through Bersheba and then across the border into Palestine, stopping at a small settlement at Ramlegh. We joined up with the Australian army and after a couple of weeks moved up the coast road through Palestine past Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and crossed the border into Lebanon. Then, on through Tyre and up the coast to Beruit where we set up camp in the sand-dunes on the seaward side of Beruit Airport.

The Aussies had been clearing the opposition (Vichy French) ahead of us all the way. We provided communications back to HQ in Cairo, to the Air Ministry in London and to local units in the area. Once when I was filling sandbags, a black scorpion crawled up my trouser leg and bit me twice on the thigh. It was very painful, and one Aussie produced a huge knife and said he would cut it and let the poison out. I told him what he could do with his knife and managed to find a British MO at the airport who gave me an injection and some pills.

Early Autumn ’41 – Moved all the way back to Helwan and re-equipped. Then moved up the desert in operation “Battleaxe”.

Tobruk had already been re-captured and we moved up behind the 7th Armoured Corps to Benghazi, where we set up shop again. The Africa Corps then pushed in from Tripolitania and we joined the retreat back to Tobruk. We were bombed and strafed all the way losing three men and four vehicles. Got a shell splinter in my left foot, the medical orderly stuck a first aid dressing on it and gave me an injection for the pain, but we had to continue on the retreat until we came across a First Aid Post.

Grave of South African pilot near his crashed aircraft. Beautifully kept in its isolated position.

Grave of South African pilot near his crashed aircraft. Beautifully kept in its isolated position.

Had it properly treated and dressed and then continued on the retreat back along the coast via Mersa Matruh and back to Helwan in the Delta. Went into the Military hospital in Cairo until my foot healed; luckilyno infection. Things were very confused during this retreat which turned into a complete rout and was very chaotic. The army eventually held the Africa Corps at the Egyptian border. Once again we re-equipped and repaired our vehicles. While we were there the RAF in the Middle East was renamed the ‘Desert Air Force’ (DAF) and our unit was given a new title No.105 Mobile Signals Unit. We were ordered to move up the desert again to provide the communications for the Advanced HQ DAF.

Late Autumn ‘41 – Joined the new advance called operation Crusader and followed the advance after many exploits to Benghazi. We set up shop at Fort Capuzzo, an old Italian fort. It had been used by them as a communications centre, and there was a 200 ft. steel lattice aerial mast there. It was my job to climb up the vertical ladder through the centre of the mast in order to connect up our transmitting aerials. When I got to the top I suffered from vertigo, and it was some time before I found the courage to connect up the aerials and come down.

 

Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck - appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East theatre, but after initial successes the war in North Africa turned against the British, and he was relieved of the post in 1942 during the crucial Alamein campaign. He had an uneasy relationship with his subordinate Bernard Montgomery later wrote: “In the 5th Corps I first served under Auchinleck.....I cannot recall that we ever agreed on anything”

Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck – appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Middle East theatre, but after initial successes the war in North Africa turned against the British, and he was relieved of the post in 1942 during the crucial Alamein campaign. He had an uneasy relationship with his subordinate Bernard Montgomery later wrote: “In the 5th Corps I first served under Auchinleck…..I cannot recall that we ever agreed on anything”

Feb ‘42 – Then Rommel attacked again from Tunisia, and we had to start retreating again. Eventually after much strafing and bombing by Stukas we got back to the Delta and Helwan again . The Germans were stopped just short of El Alamein. Then Montgomery and Auchinleck took over command and moral started to increase. They retrained the 8th Army to operate like the Germans, using aircraft, tanks and infantry as one, instead of each planning their own strategy as in the past. They built up large forces ready for the next big push.

Oct ’42 – At 10 pm on the night of 23 Oct ‘42 about 1000 guns opened up at El Alamein. The whole sky lit up red and the noise was ear shattering. This went on all night, and in the morning the army started to advance.

They were bogged down in various sections of the front due to various commanders not following Monty’s orders and not keeping to the timetable. He soon shifted them and eventually the Germans broke and went into headlong retreat. Our unit then followed up with the Army Advanced HO and Advanced DAF HO, which now operated together. Monty was always in evidence and we saw a lot of him. He fought battles from the front, not from Cairo as previous Commanders had. Eventually we got to Tripoli on 24 Jan’43 – we were then separated from the Joint HO‘s and moved into an olive orchard outside Tripoli.

We took part in the victory parade in Tripoli where Churchill came out to take the salute. We set up shop again in this delightful place – no air attacks or shelling! Meanwhile Monty was pressing on to the Mareth line, and eventually to Tunis, were he joined up with the Americans who had fought their way through Morocco. This was in May ‘43.We were then told to strip all the desert camouflage of our vehicles and paint them green and brown. We wondered where we were going next.

Sep ’43 – Our cypher machine was in an ante room.The Typex Machine produced a coded message consisting of five letter groups.When setting the machine ready for use first thing was to reset the five rotors. The setting was changed every 24 hours and consisted of setting a different letter of each rotor.When a message in plain language was typed in a continuous gummed paper tape was extracted showing the coded message as five letter groups. This could then be stuck on a message that and given to an operator to be transmitted by Morse code.

Typex was based on the commercial Enigma machine, but incorporated a number of additional features to improve the security.

Typex was based on the commercial Enigma machine, but incorporated a number of additional features to improve the security.

When a coded message was received for decoding the five letter groups were typed into the machine. The paper tape then came out in plain language. This was then stuck on the message pad and delivered to the addressee by dispatch rider. We attached a grenade with a short fuse under the machine to destroy it in an emergency

Boarded a tank landing craft in Tripoli harbour and we set sail for Italy. Went ashore at Taranto and headed south. There was not much opposition and the landings went off smoothly. We camped at a place called Pistici and stayed there until soon after Xmas, not doing much at all. We felt the cold though after North Africa and were issued with army battledress.

Moved up to the suburbs of Naples and took over some requisitioned houses. Did not stay long though and moved up to Caserta. We took up residence in the royal palace and set up the transmitters in the magnificent gardens, and our receiving equipment in the throne room. It was a huge room, completely devoid of furniture and with two marble thrones at one end. We set up our receivers on trestle tables in the middle.

During the night watches we would sit huddled up in greatcoats and with a paraffin heater under the table. It was freezing cold. I got some woollen mittens so I could operate the morse key. It really was a magnificent room with huge pictures painted round the walls. The doors were about 10 ft. high and 9 ins. thick and beautifully carved on both sides in white and gilt. But there was no heating and it was very draughty. We had to live in tents in the grounds for all that winter, and we had snow, ice, and frost to contend with!  After some weeks the Americans turned up.

They turfed us out of the ‘Throne Room’ and proceeded to partition it up into separate units each with a teletype machine. They could receive morse code and type it straight into the machine. No pencil and paper for them! We were relegated to a small room elsewhere. But they ruined those beautiful doors by cutting great holes through them to bring their cables through. I often wonder what they look like now. On one occasion we got into Naples and watched the opera there.

Mar ’44 – Moved up to a location just outside Rome and set up once again in yet another olive orchard. This was also designated to be our R and R period. But most of the time was spent on repair and re-equipping the vehicles. We spent 2 months there and wondered if we would move further north.

May ’44 – Moved across to a little port on the west coast called Civitavecchia where we boarded another tank landing craft with all our vehicles. We set sail and landed in the port of Bastia, at the north end of Corsica. Then travelled round the north end of the island on an awful road that had huge drops into the sea. Finished up in yet another olive grove located on the coast just outside Calvi. We stayed here for 2 months, and since it was out of the war zone we had a very restful time.

Wireless receiver vehicles operating in southern France

Wireless receiver vehicles operating in southern France

Aug ’44 – Boarded another landing craft in Calvi harbour and joined a large convoy of ships and headed for southern France. We went ashore at the beach at St.Tropez with the Free French. Luckily there was not much opposition and we never lost any vehicles or men. As the French army cleared the coastal strip along to Marseilles, and took the airfields at Marignane and Istre le Tube, we stopped in a peach orchard near Salon and set up shop again. We stayed there for about a month, and we had no air raids.

Then we moved on into a suburb of Marseilles called St. Margarite and took over a small chateau standing in its own park. There our job was to provide the communications between the Air Ministry, HQ Middle East (Cairo) and local units. We spent a lot of off duty time in Marseilles. On occasion we saw naked women collaborators with their hair shaved off being paraded through the streets by the local Maqui, called the “Jeunesse Communiste”. They were not very friendly to the Brits either.

Resistance groups could also be merciless towards women. In Brittany it is said that a third of those civilians killed in reprisals were women. Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work

Resistance groups could also be merciless towards women. In Brittany it is said that a third of those civilians killed in reprisals were women. Once a city, town or village had been liberated by the allies or the resistance, the shearers would get to work

We stayed there until after Christmas and managed to get a few army nurses in for a bit of a celebration. They were quite impressed with our Chateau.

Jan ’45 – It was decided that our job was finished in Marseilles, and we moved north up the Rhone to Avignon and Valence and on to Lyons. We had hopes of joining up with our forces in the north, but it was not to be. We still came under the command of HQ Middle and could not integrate with the northern forces who came under SHAEF. After a short period of operations we moved back to Marseilles. There our unit was disbanded and split up. Personal who were tour expired, after 4 years, and this included me, were put on an aircraft at Marignane and flown back to Naples.

The other half of the unit went across to Yugoslavia to provide communications operating with the resistance. I was lucky that I did not go with them, as they were never heard of again. Spent a short time in a transit camp in Naples, and then boarded a troopship and set sail for the UK. There was only our ship plus a destroyer escort who had to fight off two U-boat attacks on the way home.

A merchant ship attacked from a position facing the stern, January 1942. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”. During the war the U-boats sank about 2,779 ships for a total of 14.1 million tons. This figure is roughly 70% of all allied shipping losses in all theatres of the war. The most successful year was 1942 when over 6 million tons of shipping was sunk in the Atlantic. (Image source: German Federal Archive (Bundesarchiv))

A merchant ship attacked from a position facing the stern, January 1942. Prime Minister Winston Churchill wrote: “The only thing that really frightened me during the war was the U-boat peril”. During the war the U-boats sank about 2,779 ships for a total of 14.1 million tons. This figure is roughly 70% of all allied shipping losses in all theatres of the war. The most successful year was 1942 when over 6 million tons of shipping was sunk in the Atlantic. (Image source: German Federal Archive, Bundesarchiv)

Eventually we landed at Gourack on the Firth of Clyde. After debriefing and customs we were put on a train to Morecombe. Two of us were billeted with a very pleasant landlady in the town. We handed in all our overseas kit and rifles etc., and were issued with a complete new set. Not blue uniforms though, we received army battledress.

When all the paperwork was completed we were issued with pay and travel warrants and sent on 1 months leave. I sent a telegram to my parents, caught a train south, and they met me off the train at Banbury. I spent my leave in the farmhouse my parents rented near a small village near Edge Hill in Warwickshire. It was a lovely situation, and I used to go for long walks every day across the fields with my Dad’s shotgun and bring back rabbits for the pot. It was a very restful period after the previous 6 years. So that was the end of my wartime experiences. Some of it was very hair raising, but I was very lucky I suppose and gained an awful lot of experience into the bargain.

NOTES

When we first equipped our unit in 1941, the vehicles were old and we had to design and build the bodywork to those we were going to use for wireless (it wasn’t called radio in those days) communications. The wireless receivers were old and virtually obsolete (they had been designed and built in 1930), all valves of course. The transmitters were of similar ilk and the whole unit was makeshift and pathetic. Still, we managed to carry out our job, and coped over the first two years with improvisation and scrounging parts from shot up vehicles and raiding the wireless stores at base depots.

The Army was not much better. They did not have any anti-tank guns until they captured some from the Italians. The tanks were pathetic and old design and only carried one two pound gun. When they first met the Germans their shells bounced off the enemy tanks. Their armour was very thin too. The only half tracks were Bren Gun Carriers, which were not designed to operate over sand and the bearings kept seizing up.

A Bren Gun Carrier - were usually used for transporting personnel and equipment, mostly support weapons, or as machine gun platforms. The hull in front of the commander's position jutted forward to give room for the Bren gun (or other armament) to fire through a simple slit. Either side of the engine were two areas in which troops could ride or stores be carried. Some 113,000 were built by 1960 in the United Kingdom and abroad (Image: AP Photos)

A Bren Gun Carrier – were usually used for transporting personnel and equipment, mostly support weapons, or as machine gun platforms. The hull in front of the commander’s position jutted forward to give room for the Bren gun (or other armament) to fire through a simple slit. Either side of the engine were two areas in which troops could ride or stores be carried. Some 113,000 were built by 1960 in the United Kingdom and abroad (Image: AP Photos)

There were no aircraft to speak of in the Middle East – only two Blenheim squadrons, a few Hurricanes and Gloster Gladiators and two Bristol Bombay troop carriers, which could only fly at 80 mph. When Rommel arrived the German weapons and equipment were decades ahead of what we had.

Also their troops were better trained and led. Their strategy and tactics were based on what they learned in Spain, Belgian and France. We still seemed to be following the same old tactics as used in WW1. It wasn’t until we started to receive ‘Lease Lend’ equipment from America that things slowly started to improve. Our unit benefited from some up to date US communication receivers and transmitters, also some GMC vehicles (formally the GMC Division of General Motors LLC, an American automobile division of the American manufacturer General Motors).

In writing this history a lot of incidents have been lost in time. But odd snippets keep returning. For instance, petrol came in shiny thin tin cans about 10 inches square and 15 inches high in size. They held 4 gallons. When empty, they would be cut in half and the bottom half used as cooking appliances.

If we had any washing water, the bottom half would be filled with sand and the used water filtered through in order to be used again. Half a tin filled with sand and soaked in petrol was our means of providing a cooking fire. Filled with sand they could be used like building bricks to construct another which was fuelled with petrol. Another use was half a tin again filled with sand and stood outside the tent to urinate in. These were called ‘Desert Lilies’.

4-gallon fuel canisters - made of several panels of thin (easily-punctured) flat mild-steel plates, would often leak often causing vehicle fires. Poorly designed and manufactured; most  were only able to be used once

4-gallon fuel canisters – made of several panels of thin (easily-punctured) flat mild-steel plates, would often leak often causing vehicle fires. Poorly designed and manufactured; most were only able to be used once

They also made excellent loudspeakers for the crystal radio sets we made to receive the British Forces Broadcast on long wave from Cairo. The crystal was made from a piece of potato (when one could get it) and the edge of a razor blade. It was the starch in the potato that provided the crystal.

During the desert campaign the Army broadcast a radio programme on long wave from Cairo called ‘Forces Broadcast’ and since we had no radios with us we constructed crystal sets. Using the age of a razor blade as the ‘cat’s whisker’ and a piece of potato as the ‘crystal’ (using the starch in the potato to act accordingly)

Then we would wind a coil of wire and use a condenser and resistor and this formed the receiver after a lot of adjustments of the razor one would eventually get a signal.

We then connected the output to pair of headphones  – et voila – if one took the diaphragm of the earpiece I connected it to the battery of petrol in the top was cut out one had quite a reasonable loudspeaker!

Mind you, this only works if we had a piece of potato which was not very often. NB – the crystal and Cats whisker was the forerunner on which the diode and transistor developed.

During the desert campaigns we never saw any fruit at all. Our rations came from the UK in the form of dehydrated meat and vegetables. It came in huge solid blocks, and one would break off a piece and boil it. It was tasteless and horrible. We had powdered eggs, tinned corned beef (THANK GOODNESS) and sometimes tinned soya link sausages. No bread, only hard ships biscuits and some horrible tins of what was called Oleo margarine.

Most of the time, it came out liquid because of the heat. Whenever we came across a NAAFI bulk depot (which were few and far between in the desert) cigarettes, tobacco, tins of boiled sweets, tinned beans and stew and anything they had to supplement our poor rations.

Packet of 'V' for Victory cigarettes containing ten-cigarettes. Life in the Western Desert centred on 'K' rations brewing endless cups of tea and smoking Victory V cigarette

Packet of ‘V’ for Victory cigarettes containing ten-cigarettes. Life in the Western Desert centred on ‘K’ rations, brewing endless cups of tea and smoking Victory ‘V’ cigarettes.

We were also issued with 50 cigarettes a week. At first they came from ‘The Imperial Tobacco company of India’ and were called Victory ‘V’. I think they were made with dried camel dung and they were horrible. Even the Arabs wouldn’t smoke them!  Soap and water was another problem as we were only issued with one water bottle a day.

We used to make a mug of tea and use the last half inch to wash our teeth. We carried saltwater soap, and would take advantage of washing ourselves and our clothes whenever we were near the sea. You can imagine that we didn’t get washed very often. Our hair got so matted with sand and sweat that one couldn’t get a comb through it. What always amazed me was the vast number of flies that would suddenly appear when food was present. One could be miles out in the desert in complete isolation, but as soon as food appeared so did thousands of flies. Perhaps we carried them with us.

I suppose the worst experiences were to be caught on the coast road by aircraft and bombed and strafed. There was nowhere to shelter, and both sides of the road were always heavily mined. We just had to keep moving and trust to luck. It became very personal. The other was being shelled, they would suddenly come out of nowhere without warning. Lots of times we had to cut across the desert and were very lucky not to meet any German patrols. The Germans salted the fresh water wells when they retreated so the result was one third salt and two thirds water. It made tea and cooking taste horrible.

Changing rear axle spring and about to be surrounded by Teurags!

Changing rear axle spring and about to be surrounded by Teurags!

The only compensation was the fact that they had to drink it also when they advanced again! On one occasion we had to drink water from our vehicle radiators until we could get fresh supplies. On another occasion one of the Crossley trucks broke a spring while we were in convoy. Our CO decided the convoy could not wait. Luckily we were passing through an old battle site and there were lots of shot up vehicles littered about. As a Corporal at the time I was ordered to stay with the truck and the driver and to locate a spring off one of the wrecks.

The convoy went on its way. We found a suitable spring and after a lot of effort we managed to replace it. We brewed up and settled down for the night. Suddenly a group of about 20 horsemen appeared and surrounded us.

They were Tuarags, armed to the teeth and looking very fierce. We greeted them in our pidgin Arabic and offered them some tea. We gave them some tins of tea which seem to please them, and off they went. It was very scary as we did not know whether they were pro-German or not. We set off next morning and eventually caught up with the Unit.

Tuareg people - are a Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoral lifestyle moving constantly across national borders. Tuareg men begin to wear a veil over the face at approximately eighteen years of age. This signifies that they are adults and are ready to marry - a symbol of male identity. It is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits. The face veil is worn differently in dissimilar social situations. It is worn highest (covering the mouth and nose) to convey reverence in the presence of chiefs, older persons, and in-laws.

Tuaregs – are a Berber people with a traditionally nomadic pastoral lifestyle moving constantly across national borders. Tuareg men begin to wear a veil over the face at approximately eighteen years of age. This signifies that they are adults and are ready to marry – a symbol of male identity. It is also thought to protect the wearer from evil spirits.
The face veil is worn differently in dissimilar social situations. It is worn highest (covering the mouth and nose) to convey reverence in the presence of chiefs, older persons, and in-laws.

 

Sam King 2012

End Note…

… Sam eventually mentioned that he had drawn a picture of a Gloster Gladiator, one of my favourite aircraft, so obviously I asked if I could see it but I was more than surprised when he showed me his other artworks which were all drawn in the middle of the Western Desert. I think they are well worth preserving…

 

RAF Church Fenton Gladiator

Prototype Gloster Gladiator built to Air Ministry Spec. 7/130 and was named G37; designed by Mr H. P. Folland it first flew in September 1934. It reappeared as Gladiator K5200 and appeared at Hendon June 27, 1935. Gladiators were the last of the RAF biplane fighters – drawn by Sam King 1943

 

RAF Church Fenton

Drawing reminiscent of Carmen Miranda!

 

RAF Church Fenton Girl

 

RAF Church Fenton Arab

Drawing of an Arab Chieftain

 

Example of paper currency issued to British Forces in occupied territories in Europe during World War II. It was printed in various denominations

Example of paper currency issued to British Forces in occupied territories in Europe during World War II. It was printed in various denominations

 

 and finally…

 

The Sparks Badge’ - originally introduced in September 1918 but abolished at the end of WW1.however it was re-introduced in 1920 and is still worn today on the upper right arm.  http://www.rafsignalsmuseum.org.uk/ - this Museum attempts to tell the story of RAF signals. It is hoped visitors and signallers past, present and future can see something of the heritage upon which the Museum specialisation has been built

‘The Sparks Badge’ – originally introduced in September 1918 but abolished at the end of WW1. However it was re-introduced in 1920 and is still worn today on the upper right arm. The RAF Signals Museum attempts to tell the story of RAF signals. It is hoped visitors and signallers past, present and future can see something of the heritage upon which the Museum specialisation has been built: http://www.rafsignalsmuseum.org.uk/

 


 

However, this visit provided yet another surprise…

Monica Watson aged xxx in 19xx

Monica Watson aged 19 in 1942

The client I had actually gone to see was Mrs Monica Watson who casually mentioned that she was the fiance of a Lancaster bomber pilot during the last war. Little did I realise how significant this was, but after a little research, I discovered that this particular pilot and his crew was associated with a very historic aeroplane.

Monica now tells us her story here…

Whilst in the Wrens I met and became engaged to a pilot called Flying Officer (later Squadron Leader) Kenyon Bowen-Bravery of 550 Squadron.

Based at RAF North Killingholme he took part in the D-Day landings at Normandy on 6 June 1944 ; one of the defining points of WW2 and 550 Squadron played a historic part in the attack.

One of the Lancasters sent by 550 Sqn to assist the invasion was LL811 J-Jig. Known as ‘Bad Penny II’ and flown by Flying Officer K. Bowen-Bravery and crew, the aircraft dropped the first bombs of the campaign, earning a ‘Croix de Guerre’ from the French authorities.

At 11.34pm they released 14 1,000lb bombs, the first to fall in support of the airborne and amphibious assault, which was about to commence. Their action was captured in an artist’s impression (below) which was published in many national newspapers and magazines.

 

550 Sqn Lancaster (LL811 J-Jig (Bad Penny II)) was credited with opening the D-day attack when it dropped the first string of bombs at 23:34 on 5 June. Kenyon writes "'J' Jig Lancaster  LL811. Kenyon Writes " 'J'  Jig Lancaster LL811, who carried your love as a shield over the greater right and occupied territories. The liberators of Europe. Ken xxx "

550 Sqn Lancaster LL811 J-Jig (Bad Penny II) was credited with opening the D-day attack when it dropped the first string of bombs at 23:34 on 5 June. Kenyon writes ” ‘J’ Jig Lancaster LL811, who carried your love as a shield over the greater right and occupied territories. The liberators of Europe. Ken xxx “

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Bowen-Bravery crew (Bowen-Bravery, Thompson, Thomas, Fyffe, Cleghorn, Bodill, Thompson) were awarded Croix de Guerre (CdG) by the French Government in recognition of their aircraft leading the opening attacks on D-Day. Bowen-Bravery survived a number of visits to the “Big City”, many in his Lancaster 'J' for Jig, which he rechristened 'Bad Penny II' as bad pennies always come back. The elephant is coloured RAF pink.

The Bowen-Bravery crew (Bowen-Bravery, Thompson, Thomas, Fyffe, Cleghorn, Bodill, Thompson) were awarded Croix de Guerre (CdG) by the French Government in recognition of their aircraft leading the opening attacks on D-Day. Bowen-Bravery survived a number of visits to the “Big City”, many in his Lancaster ‘J’ for Jig, which he rechristened ‘Bad Penny II’ as bad pennies always come back. The elephant is coloured RAF pink.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LL811 - Kenyon writes at the back of the photo "The scourge of the Reich - Bad Penny II successor to Lancaster EO605 'G' George

LL811 – Kenyon writes at the back of the photo “The scourge of the Reich – Bad Penny II successor to Lancaster EO605 ‘G’ George”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A widely circulated artist's impression of Kenyon Bowen-Bravery's Lancaster, 'Bad Penny II'

A widely circulated artist’s impression of Kenyon Bowen-Bravery’s Lancaster, ‘Bad Penny II’

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Kenyon writes to Monica on the back of the photograph "Hard at work 10,000 feet up over the Sinai desert in a dust storm (pardon the slightly anxious expression)"

Kenyon writes to Monica on the back of the photograph “Hard at work 10,000 feet up over the Sinai desert in a dust storm (pardon the slightly anxious expression)”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After leaving the RAF in early 1948 he worked in the marketing division of Proctor & Gamble before entering television in 1956.Kenyon Bowen-Bravery died in September 2013 at the age of 90 and his obituary recalls the part he played in Operation Overlord the greatest liberating armada in military history. He was only 21 years old.

After leaving the RAF in early 1948 he worked in the marketing division of Proctor & Gamble before entering television in 1956.Kenyon Bowen-Bravery died in September 2013 at the age of 90 and his obituary recalls the part he played in Operation Overlord the greatest liberating armada in military history. He was only 21 years old.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The RAF 550 Squadron and North Killingholme Association was formed to help the members of the squadron, and their families and friends to keep in touch and to establish a permanent link between the squadron and the village in which it was based. 

www.550squadronassociation.org.uk/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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