Memoirs

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Personal Reminiscences of Richard Wyld

2M3 / 41st Entry 1940 to 1942

Entrance Exam

In December 1939 I took the Open Competition for RAF Aircraft Apprentices in Rochester, as I had not then sat the Schools Certificate. We were examined in four subjects:- mathematics, English, physics, and general knowledge (geography, history, and current affairs), and the standard was regarded as Schools Certificate standard. If I had not taken the RAF examination I would have sat the Schools Certificate in the summer of 1940. The exam lasted all day, and Mum gave me money to buy lunch. I had steak and chips in a nearby cafe. I remember it clearly because the meat was so tough it was barely edible. It probably cost about 1/6d (15p). I was successful, and achieved 24th place in a field of about 200 candidates and passed. In the previous exam six months earlier over 1000 were accepted. An optimist at the Air Ministry must have thought the war would be over before we passed out! The duration of the course in peace time was three years.

Halton

Notification arrived that I should report to RAF Halton early in March 1940. Dad saw me off from St. Marylebone station whence I travelled to Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire. His parting words are etched in my memory. "It may not be what you are expecting," he said, "If you don't like the look of it, come home before you sign anything." That was probably the best advice I've ever been given! A few days were spent at Halton whilst medical examinations, signing-on, issuing uniforms, and deciding which trades we rookies were to be trained in were completed, I had chosen to be trained as a Wireless Operator/Mechanic, mainly because that sounded better than Fitter Engines or Fitter Airframes. Furthermore, I had been especially interested in studying electricity and magnetism in physics lessons at school. This involved transferring to Cranwell in Lincolnshire where No.1 Signals School was situated, about five miles from Sleaford.

Cranwell

At Cranwell accommodation was basic. We lived in huge dormitories of about 30 lads. Each of us had a very hard bed, a bedside locker, and a metal locker attached to the wall above the bed, and that was the total of our individual possessions. These barrack rooms were arranged in blocks of eight with central bathing facilities, and resembled the "H blocks" of the Maze prison in Northern Ireland. This was the grim precursor of what was to follow! Meals were taken in the Apprentices dining hall seated on wooden benches at bare wooden trestle tables. The meals were generous in quantity, but pathetic in quality. Queues at the servery were always many yards long, and the washing-up water looked like particularly revolting brown Windsor soup.

Every day started at an ungodly hour with a parade and inspection, and woe betide any luckless individual whose buttons and boots failed to dazzle the eye, or whose hair exceeded half an inch. We spent hours every day marching up and down the parade ground like automata. It was only the arrival of Easter leave a few weeks later which saved my sanity. Some may think it was too late! After Easter, instruction started. The classrooms were mostly wooden huts each with its coal-fired stove, and we had to take turns at lighting them. The laboratories and workshops were all situated in brick buildings. I found the technical training interesting, but I was to discover that the theoretical instruction was superficial. A vast amount of time was lost on drill, parades, inspections, fatigues, PT, and taking cover from imaginary air raids. Ultimately, it was decided that normal duties would continue until a raid actually happened. It never did in my two years at Cranwell.

Life at home was not the same. When I was on summer leave in 1940, I watched a dive-bombing attack on Detling aerodrome in which the airmen's mess hall was hit at a meal time. There were many casualties.

From Kent Airfields Remembered by Robin J Brooks

... 14.00 hours ... Air Raid Sirens ... Commanding Officer went into Operations Room ... forty Junkers 87 (Stuka) aircraft appeared out of the cloud and began to demolish Detling

... some of the men and women were leaving the mess after the evening meal.

... Operations block received direct hit and together with several other people, Group Captain Davis fell dead to the floor with a piece of jagged concrete ... through his skull.

Twenty two aircraft were destroyed on the ground and sixty seven service and civilian personnel were killed.

... the local population of Maidstone were gearing themselves to lend aid and assistance to the stricken airfield. Casualty Clearing Officer Wallace Beale ... sped to the shattered airfield together with local units of the Civil Defence.

... sixty seven people killed ... ninety four ... injured ...

Of the ... Waafs ... one was to endure the raid and die later in an air crash ...
An extract from a letter to a colleague portrays the terror that she felt.

I expect you heard of the awful raid of the 13th August. I was lust leaving the Ops block and posting a letter, then suddenly out of a cloudy sky they swooped. There were about fifty or sixty Huns and they let hell loose. Never have I heard such a noise. I ran like fury with two airmen, they poor dears got killed by bullets in the back as we were machine-gunned as we ran. I have never in my whole life been so utterly terrified. I got hit by some flying wood so I threw myself on the ground while everything blew up as they dive-bombed. All of B Flight went up including the planes just by me. Afterwards I got cracking and cleared the road by the sick-bay with my hands so that the ambulances could pass. After that raid the attacks have been continual. The poor old Waaf quarters got bashed about so we are now billeted some distance away from the airfield. I worked for forty eight hours after the raid without sleep and carried on with very little for three weeks.

Apprentices were paid 1/- (5p) per day of which 5d were kept back, and paid at leave periods. This covered the cost of toilet articles, and haircutting, cups of tea in the NAAFI, and an occasional visit to the camp cinema. Trips to Sleaford or Grantham had to await a windfall! The parents of one of my friends lived in Grantham, and they welcomed me to their home which did a lot for my sagging morale. Shortly after arrival at Cranwell, I noticed that another lad in my class always stood to eat his meals. I asked him the reason, and he replied in his strong Glaswegian accent "Ah didna sit tae eat at hame, and a'm no startin' the noo." He was the typical dour Scot, looked old beyond his years, and rarely smiled. He and I were present in the NAAFI when one of the lads threw a live .303 round in the coal-fired stove. I was surprised at the lengthy interval before it exploded. It was quite exciting. The circular metal cover for the filling hole was propelled several feet amid a shower of sparks, and from the bottom grill hot coals joined the throng of those toasting their toes. How the prankster got the round remains a mystery, because all live ammunition was checked out and checked in.

The technical instructors were civilians, and from what I could see of their life style were not generously paid. One who lives on in my memory was in charge of the machine shop where we learned about electric motors and generators. We called our tutor "Dynamo Dan", and he was frequently appalled at the way we mistreated his beloved machines. "It's bloody sabotage letting you lads loose on these machines," he would yell.
The Education Lecturers were a different breed. They were all commissioned and degree qualified. They continued our education in mathematics and English. One, whose name I remember was Bradley, was the most boring lecturer imaginable. He could put a class to sleep in halt an hour. I felt sorry for him, and used to try my hardest to stay awake, but I was no match. for him. He would drone on totally ignoring the sleepers around him.

During Christmas leave 1940 I remember seeing the north-west night sky glowing red from the fires in the London docks from my parent's garden about 30 miles away.

Parade Ground Crash

It was during the winter of 1940 - 1941, when my class was being drilled yet again on the parade ground, that a Percival Proctor approached from the south. The Proctor was a light two-seater which was used at Cranwell for giving wireless operators air experience. The aircraft passed just east of the parade ground at a height of a few hundred feet, and entered a turn to port to join the circuit to land on the North airfield (there were two at Cranwell). The turn grew ever steeper until, when the wings were nearly vertical, the inevitable happened, the wing stalled, and the Proctor began to spin. There was no hope of recovery from such a low level, and the aircraft spun straight in, just outside the parade ground. Our drill instructor dismissed us to do what we could. Jock Manley and I shot away leaving the rest of the squad behind. When we were yards from the aircraft it went up in flames with a tremendous whoosh! I stopped dead in my tracks, but Jock (he who "didna sit doon") plunged into the flames. I could see him wrestling with the canopy, and I shouted "Don't be a fool Jock", but he ignored me. I had visions of three being dead instead of the two I could see hanging in their straps in the Proctor, so I followed Jock into the flaming wreck, grabbed him by the collar of his coat, and heaved. He was much bigger than me, but he did not resist as I dragged him out of the flames. His greatcoat was smouldering nicely so I rolled him in the grass. By this time the roof of a wooden hut a few yards away was on fire, but luckily the fire brigade rolled up then. The only recognition that Jock received was a new greatcoat.

Flying

There was very little flying involved during our training, and that was in obsolete aircraft such as a Vickers Valentia, a troop carrier designed in 1922 and bearing a strong resemblance to the Vickers Vimy of 1918! It had a cabin for 18 troops, but the crew of two occupied an open cockpit. The airspeed indicator consisted of a forward-facing, spring-loaded vane which was forced across a calibrated quadrant by the slipstream. It was mounted on one of the inner wing struts. You couldn't get simpler than that! I also had flights in a DH Dragon Rapide and an Airspeed Oxford. The latter was a twin-engined trainer with seats for two. As third man, I sat on the main wing spar where it passed through the cabin, and of course I had no straps. What is more, the trainee pilot was doing circuits and bumps! Today it seems almost incredible.

Another activity involving aircraft which were strictly grounded, concerned a number of Fairey Battles. These were light bombers some of which saw service with the British Expeditionary Force in France in the earliest days of the war. They were sitting ducks for the German Me 109 fighters and were soon withdrawn from front-line service. Some of them were to be used at Cranwell for training ground crews, and to pack as many as possible into the available space it was decided to remove the wings. To achieve this we apprentices were supplied with hacksaws, and told to get on with it. Apprentices were cheap!

Family at War

It must have been at about this time that my sister left school, and started her training as a nurse at Heatherwood Hospital at Ascot. Probably she had to endure treatment not unlike mine. Around that time Dad was posted to Thorney Island in Hampshire, still with Coastal Command. That left Mum at home alone, so she took a job with the Ministry of Food in Gillingham, dealing with ration cards.   As a family we were well separated.

No Propeller!

I thought it was a poor joke when, in May 1941, another apprentice asked me if I had seen the aircraft with no propeller. An hour or so later I heard an unusual noise, and looking aloft had the surprise of my life on seeing an aeroplane in flight without a propeller. The pilot commenced an approach to land on the south airfield (much the bigger), so I hurried to a place where I could observe what was going on. As soon as the aircraft touched down a bevy of vehicles drove on to the airfield arid surrounded the aircraft. I did not know at the time that it was the first British jet-powered aircraft, the Gloster E28/39. Only two specimens were built. The aircraft spent only a few weeks at Cranwell, and was kept in a hangar under armed guard throughout. It gave rise to the Gloster Meteor, the only Allied jet aircraft to see operational service in WW2, and the only fighter which could catch a V1 (the German flying bomb also called "Doodlebug" or "Buzzbomb") in straight and level flight.

On the whole I found life at Cranwell a bugbear. The stultifying atmosphere of service life was difficult to endure. I welcomed the final examinations early in 1942 as the prelude to my escape in March. As a fully trained Aircraftman 1st Class, I was posted to Detling only six miles or so from home. On Passing Out, apprentices were given the chance to express a preference for their first posting, and I had been lucky.

  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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