Sunday, August 20, 2017
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On the third of September 1944 I arrived in Naples in Italy, as a passenger on a United States Air Force Dakota. Yet another transit camp, but for the first time in a country that had been conquered. For the people this was a degradation coupled with poverty. The administration was carried out by the occupying forces so even the familiar was lost. The currency was changed and basic services limited, they had to survive and make do. Here begins the seeds of hate which we know can last for centuries. A good example is the celebrations or remembrances, depending on which side, of events that only the history book recalls. On these grounds I rest my case for the federation of Europe. It is not the uselessness of war itself but also the aftermath In my opinion this applies to all violent actions

I joined 37 Squadron 205 Group based in Tortorella, Foggia on the eighth of September. I was still on Wellingtons, now all mark tens with the Hercules engines. At Tortorella we shared with 70 Squadron R.A.F. and also Squadrons of U.S.A.F who flew Fortresses. The USAF ran the airfield and mostly operated their aeroplanes during the day and the RAF at night. We didn't socialise much because of our hours of work but we did complement in many fields which I'm sure were not approved by the Pentagon or the Air Ministry. In the RAF we had a ration of spirits, and I seem to remember a couple of bottles of scotch were worth a daily delivery of freshly baked jam filled doughnuts to all messes for a month. A jeep to go on leave had a price in bottles, with extra for a paint job to RAF roundels. Many years later my favourite television programme of Sgt, Bilko brought back memories.

 

I had also changed to Bombers, not Bomber Command as we were all under Mediterranean Allied Air Force in this theatre of the war. 205 Group was in fact the R.A.F bomber contingent of M.A.A.F. and comprised Wellingtons and Liberators. The Liberators were American B24's, 4 engines and that wonderful modern invention for those days of a nose wheel, and its improved steering on the ground. The Fortresses were tail draggers like the Wimpeys, but still better known than the 24s. but more about the Liberators later The strategy of our bombing was to concentrate the attack over a short period using marker flares laid by path-finder force. By this time air attacks by the enemy on aerodromes were rare, and to ensure a concentrated arrival aeroplanes were marshalled at the end of the take off runway to make a continuous take off and climb en route. This cut back on aircraft circling overhead with its danger of collision. So with the aircraft in position the crews would go for briefing and back to board, start the engines at a specific time for a predetermined take off. Adequate times were built in for the checks to be made which included contacting the various crew members in their operating positions. On one occasion I was the flight duty officer when a young sergeant pilot on his first flight as captain reported,that his tail gunner was not answering and we found his turret turned to the side. The doors open and no sign of an occupant. It looked as if we would have to pull the aeroplane off the operation when the Group Captain who commanded the combined squadrons climbed into the turret to take his place. Whether it was the culmination of events or the illustrious company caused it, the poor pilot swung on take off and damaged the aircraft. Fortunately no injuries but I have never seen such a cross Groupie before or since. Subsequently I was under instruction on the board of a Court-Martial and the defendant was the unfortunate air-gunner.

A board comprises a serving Officer assisted by a member of the Judge Advocate's department who is of course a legal beagle. Also sitting is an officer under instruction. The prosecutor was from the
legal department, but the defence was presented by an officer selected by the defendant usually from his unit. There are so many tragedies in war that seem to be not part of a general record of history. Politicians and generals write of events as a whole and can even justify defeats as not being their blame. Here to me was such a tragedy, a person who really should not have been in the circumstance of being an aircrew member. However within the law he was guilty of desertion and cowardice, which was a capital offence and in law carried the death penalty. I had no authority but was asked my opinion which concurred with the view of the court. It had to be left to higher authority to confirm the sentence which was ten years in gaol. I have often wondered over the years what happened to that very young man, you see I was already an old man of twenty-one.
The operations covered North Italy, Greece, Hungary, Austria and Yugoslavia. It was totally different to my previous tour of operations, we were one of many and possibly the biggest hazard was collision. The four engined aeroplanes flew higher and faster but we all arrived over the target at approximately the same
time. It was important to maintain height and direction not only for the bomb-aimer to use his bomb-sight correctly but to avoid collision, not easy if you were in a searchlight cone and brightly coloured shells were arching up to you. I suspect that many an aircraft was hit by a bomb from above. Fortunately there were no fighters over the target area but there was a lot of jinking and diving to get out of the lights when you had passed over the target. Only once was I hit by shrapnel. The usual routine was that all the crew members were to call and report. Nothing from the tail gunner caused quite a bit of anxiety till a voice reassured that all was well. Apparently the hit was close to the tail and he jumped so much he knocked off the mask with the mike. On the longer missions to Austria and Hungary we had some night fighter activity. They would track the stream and lay flares above us. Our main targets were rail marshalling yards as the emphasis was on a siege and preparing the destruction of defences for invading Germany itself.
It wasn't all easy and sometimes there were no markers and it would be very difficult to find the target, I felt very sympathetic to the early UK. bomber crews unless they had an easy target to map read.

One of our aircraft returned one day with a four thousand pound bomb hung up- couldn't be released- and had carried out the normal emergency attempts over the sea to shake it off Unfortunately the landing was disastrous and the aeroplane blew up. It became my duty to fill out the accident report and a witness was the controller, an American on the daylight shift, who admitted he had left the tower and taken to his slit trench when he had known that it was a hung-up
landing. I should point out that the name tower was a bit of a misnomer. It was a wooden scaffolding structure with a hut on top and a ladder to get up and down. However I eventually found my witness, an American fireman whose description faithfully copied by me and signed went " the plane came in and landed and went up and then down, up and down and didn't come up any more." The controller was more succinct. He it was who gave me the description " Ragship" for the Wimpey and how much they admired us for flying them. In turn we were full of admiration for the Fortress pilots, there was more holes than aeroplane landing at times.

Over Yugoslavia our work was mainly supplying Tito in his ground war against the Germans. I note on the fifth of November that we dropped supplies at Tuzla, again in the news. Will we ever learn? On another occasion when running in to the dropping zone through a valley we came upon a vast convoy of lorries and tanks on the mountain road. They were as surprised as we were and it was the only
time we fired our guns in anger. It was easier for us as mountain roads are not the most mobile of territory.

At the end of the year our squadron was to be re-equipped with Liberators and as I had almost completed my tour of operations I was posted to M.A.A.F. headquarters in the Accident investigation section.

New Years Day 1945 and for the first time in my RAF career I was on a ground appointment. As a Flight Lieutenant I was assigned to Accidents Investigation Section at Headquarters Mediterranean Allied Air Force in Caserta, Italy. The building itself had been a Royal Palace and had the steps, columns, porticos and corridors that befitted such an establishment. By this time in the war the top brass were American, and without being unkind, perhaps it was psychologically pleasing for them to play "king of the castle" in such a place. The RAF contingent consisted mainly of people from the City - stockbrokers, bankers, accountants and lawyers- and had all-sorts of titles from S/L A to G/C Z. I never found out the significance of these initials and presumably nor did the enemy. They were all nice chaps and had a terrific camaraderie. Jokes would sweep round the building in a trice. In hindsight they were probably the best to organise all the necessary nuts and bolts in the right place, especially the whisky with its importance as squadron currency.

As a Flight Lieutenant, which was as low as you could get in H.Q. the accommodation was the antithesis of a palace- a tent, one in a row of ten other rows. Caserta is about twenty kilometres from Naples and in the hills and had the rain appropriate for that location and time of year. On the other hand it was rather grand to go to the morning briefing and listen to all those important people point to those impressive maps on the walls. Not that much was happening in Italy as we were bogged down with the weather. All the action was in Northern Europe. 205 Group was re-equipping with Liberators and so had reduced operations. Fighter and fighter bombers were supporting the Army which was also bogged down in the Po valley.

The Accident Investigation Section consisted of a Group Captain, the boss, aided by an administrative Squadron Leader, two Squadron Leaders as investigators in the field, and two Flight Lieutenants to analyse the accident reports and show trends and make recommendations for action. This was a new department for MAAF. We had a team from the Air Ministry to show us how it should be done. In hindsight it was a wonderful opportunity to settle down and get some skills in analysis and application and build up contacts for the future. Unfortunately I didn't see it that way at the time. At twenty-one I was an old man on a squadron, but too young and immature at Command H.Q.

It came as a shock to realise how many accidents there were, far in excess of operational aeroplane casualties. So this was a worthwhile department. However the tendency was to close the case if the pilot could be blamed, ignoring other factors which might be appropriate For every accident a form had to be completed. Depending on the severity various opinions and actions at squadron level would be recorded. The form then came to us and approval was given if the action was agreed. In the case of serious accidents, especially with casualties, one of our own investigators would take the case. The most common accident at this time of wet weather with its mud and water was a Spitfire coming off the P.S.P.( pierced steel planking runway laid on the ground) and tipping on to its nose writing off its propeller. I know my sympathies were often with the pilot and clashed with the hardened practical assessment of Squadron and Wing Commanding Officers who recommended log-book endorsements, also approved by my Group Captain. I remember one
particular CO. who had, always recommended an endorsement suffered the same fate one day and tipped on to his nose and the childish delight I had in getting my Groupie to endorse his log-book. Some of the airfields especially near the front were in very poor condition and the laid PSP runways, even on more established airfields had poor interlocking which played havoc on tyres. As we were mainly an operational theatre we didn't have too many training accidents, although a certain amount of conversion on to types of
aeroplane had to be done on squadrons

A first for me while at Caserta was a visit to the Opera House in Naples to see "Carmen". In the scene when Carmen joins the bandits in the mountains it looked like real mountains and they were certainly real donkeys. The other great moment was a visit to Rome with an old squadron chum in his "pre-Avis" RAF roundels jeep. On a visit to the Vatican we joined a lot of people in an audience with the, then, Pope.
At the beginning of May, I applied to go back to operational service and a vacancy for a Flight commander on 178 Squadron came up and I think with mutual relief I was allowed to go. The timing was right as the war in Italy ceased on the First, and on the Seventh May Germany surrendered.

178 Squadron was based at Amendola in the Foggia basin area, part of 205 Group and operated Liberators. A four, 1200hp Pratt and Whitney Twin Wasps, engined aeroplane originally designed and built by Consolidated Aircraft of the United States was quite an upgrade for me. The aircraft we had were built by the Ford Motor Company at Willow Run near Detroit and demonstrated the difference between aircraft and car manufacturers.Our aeroplanes weighed nearly two thousand kilograms more than the originals. "Thicker armour plating," we were told but I suspect everything was a bit thicker. My conversion took place on the Squadron and the aeroplane was a delight to fly. The main difficulty was locking the controls after the nose-wheel had touched down. The locking handle was kept in place with a piece of rope which had tobe pulled on to it. A very practical design and reminded me of the garden rake proof that aircraft designers on both sides of the Atlantic were human after all.

With the war over, operations had changed significantly. Our aeroplanes were being converted into passenger aircraft, not exactly airline standard but our passengers were returning Prisoners of War who were very anxious to get home. The Lib bomb bay, unlike the Wimpey, was inside the fuselage and had a walk way through it. In fact the Wireless operator had to walk back and forth to change his radio sets with their selected frequencies, none of the highly coloured tuners of the Marconi set with its desperate operator. The bomb bay doors were sealed and a sort of planking was placed either side of the walk way. There were no windows and the only form of relaxation was to watch the control wires going backwards and forwards. To prevent any claustrophobia tendencies one of the air gunners travelled in the "cabin". Ex prisoners were collected from Northern Italy, Austria and Greece and processed at various
places for repatriation. Foggia Main was one such place and it was interesting to see different ways and means employed by " Other Nationals". The French way was to pack their Dakota till they couldn't close the door and then take off the last passenger to get it closed and then off. The Belgians had people fussing around and people were constantly getting on and off the aeroplane which would then usually night stop. The common thing was concern for their own people and it was nice to see. Perhaps that was my first favourable impression of the European community.

The Brits were mainly processed around the Naples area and we would pick them up at Pomigliano and fly them to Homesly South in Hampshire, a six and a half hour flight. We had no problems regarding our passengers and as always things improved with time. However, in my case, time was limited. In the middle of June a notice came round from the Air Ministry asking for the names of people interested in being seconded to BOAC to apply for a posting to Cairo. This was a new departure for the Ministry who normally posted the number requested. I had two problems, first my Commanding Officer was pretty cheesed off about losing a flight commander, though in fact I had not actually started. We had along chat and he pointed out the advantages of a service career such as variety of jobs and not a complete dependence on being medically fit for continuation of employment. The requirement in Cairo was for twenty six pilots and about two hundred and twenty six had applied so the second problem was selection. BOAC were quite taken aback at this vast arrival of bodies and hastily set up an appointment board. Before the actual interviews we were all assembled and addressed by a senior manager who played down the expectations of a civil career and emphasised the disadvantages to our service entitlements. This involved loss of acting rank, effecting a great number, and this caused quite an exodus. I resisted although I would have been promoted as I was on a Squadron Leader appointment. The civil ranking would be as a First Officer, second pilot, and this did not go down well and suddenly the numbers looked more manageable. Lastly all who expected to be going home on a time away basis would lose that right. By now it was within reach for a Board to interview, and I was lucky enough to be selected. On the twenty third of June 1945 I was seconded to number 5 Line, Cairo.

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