By Flt Lt Edward DSN Sparkes
We arrived in Liverpool in the damp gloom that seems to associated with homecoming servicemen. The new officers looked just that! New and shiny uniforms, new and shiny caps. One could sense, if not see, that slight curl of the lips that veteran non commissioned officers reserve for newly commissioned officers.
The new sergeant pilots fitted in far more easily. They only had to 'age' their new chevrons and wings. These were displayed by sticking the left breast through the open train window as we clattered out of Liverpool station. We came to a halt (trains never seemed to go far without stopping) by a group of platelayers, one of whom said "Just got'em lads?" It cut like a knife. It was not said in an unkindly manner but it was enough. The window was shut and the usual unhealthy fug built up. It seemed strange to us that the new sergeant pilots, some of whom had been with us for a year or more drifted off and we saw them no more.
A few day's leave. The day after getting there my sister and first serious girl friend turned up unannounced. They had joined the W.A.A.F.s together and had managed to keep together. They were stationed at Totton, Bomber Command and were in high spirits and giggling. I said that they were lucky to be able to get leave at such short notice. With much more giggling they said that they had not had permission.
"WHAT!!!' 'You have gone AWOL?" Here I was with two giggling idiots and I had only just got my wings and commission. This could blow the lot and send me back to the ranks after all that hard work and before I had done 'anything'! Stupid at this distance in time but they were packed off back to their unit in the hope that their friends had been able to cover for them. Fortunately they had been covered and they got away with it.
I had only been there about 48 hours when the telegram arrived "Report to No 17 A.F.U. (Advanced Flying Unit) Watton at once." Watton was even more isolated than it is now. The Officer's Mess was in a lovely house close to the airstrip and the other members were most welcoming which was just as well because none of my friends had been posted there. We were a motley bunch, quite a few Scandinavians and various other nationalities. We were not going to have much spare time but it looked as though Sundays would be free.
We were to be flying Masters Mark I with a Kestrel engine and Mark II with Mercury XXs. The Masters were totally different from the Harvards we had been flying before. The whole impression was of a slightly tatty operational aircraft with the British type of instrument panel with it's familiar instrument layout. One thing that was noticeable. All of the old hands wore seamen's stockings. It was so obvious. All singles pilots found the vulnerability of knees to cold. It really became miserable at any altitude and there was plenty of that to come. Mothers and girl friends were called upon and I was very lucky in being kitted out so quickly.
The clear skies of Canada belonged to another age so we had to fly every minute of clearish weather. There was to be night flying aplenty, cross country navigation, blind flying for many hours. The last meant flying under a hood that obscured any sight of the outside with an instructor in the back seat. This was an awful bind hour after hour, recovering from any spin or manoeuvre the instructor could think up. Difficult though this could be there were many occasions that I was grateful for the wonderful RAF training. Then, at last, we had guns. We fired at drogues towed behind another aircraft. What an awful job they had. We all felt that they had committed some heinous crime to be so condemned. Each pilot's bullets were greased with a different colour so that hits could be counted. At first, the sheer love of flying possessed me and I pulled her up into a near vertical climb to look over my shoulder to see the target and fall over into a stall turn, and make the attack.
My first strike count was nil...........humiliation. It took a stupidly long time for me to realise that the trick was to climb above and parallel with the towing aircraft, build up flying speed and only then, make the attack. That gave time for a fair burst of fire with good deflection before breaking away to attack again. It was the worst trait of my flying that followed me into and through ops. The sheer joy of feeling at one with the aircraft so often intruded on the object of the operation.
I here quote from a letter home at this time :-
"What a wizzard mess. Good food and the mess is very grand! Parquet flooring, everything built to last.
Will you please send my old airman's greatcoat to 1318020 Sgt Williams J. Sergeant's Mess, RAF Watton and put the pair of blue woolen gloves in the pocket. Stockings arrived, quite wonderful, my dear friends have threatened to tamper with my controls to get them. Lovely chaps though.
A Liberator came down through the clouds yesterday. Went in at 90°, all engines on full throttle. Must be a fault in design. Quite a few seem to lose those strange cuff-link tail assemblies. It seemed to come down ages after the rest. Pissing with rain; passed it on the way to flights. Odd, but new playing cards scattered all over the place. About 7-8 bought it. Must have been playing poker! One leather flying jacket with "Benny The Bum" in large yellow letters lying in the mud. Only 100 yds from the satellite mess where we have been dumped as there is no more sleeping room at the mess. Two officers to a large bedroom! My bed is next to the window with a rope to slide down. Don't worry I really do not think that Hitler will drop everything to bomb me. You are in far greater danger. (On the South Coast.)
Next day! We had a wizzard dinner at The Crown in Watton only two miles away. We managed to get the only taxi in the town. Belongs to the Hotel anyway. I had booked for ten but only eight could get away. 2 Norwegians, 1 Dane from the Norwegian Air Force and 5 sprog English officers. We managed to get the three last bottles of Hock. 8 meals £1:12. Wines and spirits £3:6:4. Somehow with etceteras it cost me £7. Can't quite understand but what the Hell! One thing that gets my goat is the fact that I am to be charged two mess bills, one for the main mess because I eat there and one for the satellite because I sleep there.
They have been asking for volunteers for P.R.U.s (Photographic Reconnaissance Unit). Stripped down Spits, highly tuned to fly at altitude. No guns, no armour plate behind the pilot, everything but the essentials removed Get in and out. Fast! Dunno. I want guns."
I naturally did not want to tell all! There was plenty more on the party front or for the fleeting 'affairs' that seem to start from nowhere and end in the same way. That can wait. There was quite a bit of socialising and we were almost ordered to attend a dance one Saturday. We had a look at the talent and decided that the beer was more interesting. We spent most of the time in the billiard room knocking it back. The C.O. came in and reminded us of our responsibilities!
We returned to the "ballroom". Finding the pressure building up we decided to 'pump ship'. A friend and I went to the french windows behind the huge curtains. No sooner than we had done so than the band stopped. There was nothing to do. I pushed open the door and solved my problem out into the rain which never seemed to stop. Unfortunately my friend forgot the that the other door was still closed, with the result that when I peeked out of our hiding place there was stream slowly making it's way to the middle of the lovely parquet flooring. We had a quick, boozy conference and decided to make our way as quickly as we could to the front door, rather than stay there until discovered.
We had no sooner made the corner of the house than a naughty beam of light into the blackout hurried our steps no end. The devil looks after his own and we made it into the entrance hall without a rain drop to give us away. The small 'orchestra' had started and the dancing was underway.
Prang At Night
It was made plain to us that conditions under operations were not expected to be particularly rosy so night flying was planned to give pilots the experience at landing by night under primitive conditions. It all seemed to be very informal. The flare path was to be marked by a row of what looked like (and probably were) seven or eight watering cans filled with paraffin. The spouts of which were filled by rags, to be set on fire.
This all looked very dicey. I was to try it out and pointed the aircraft parallel to the flares, taking care to set the direction on the instrument panel. I took off well before the flare path started with about 15º of flap and she was soon airborne. There was no time to savour feeling of complete isolation that night flying always gave me. To make the operation more like the conditions we were to find on operations we were flying from an ordinary field and those dim flames were hardly visible from 1,000ft. Strained eyes tried to keep them in view. The approach was almost by feel with one eye on the instruments and the other on the dull smoky orange flicker of the flares.
I had the feeling that I was coming in a little too fast but the main thing was to keep her exactly on course. Suddenly the flares were alongside: the wheels touched and no sooner were they seen than I was past them. CHRIST! It should not be that bumpy. She was lurching from side to side and all hope of maintaining the heading was lost. We were pranging -
Switches off. Brace for the prang! After a jolt that threw me hard upon the belts she slowly tipped forward and I prepared for her to go over on her back but she remained almost vertical. Get out! Pull the pin holding the straps - yank the helmet off - smell of petrol - turn the release on the parachute and give it a bash - it fell away.
Now what? It was black - velvet black and no sound but a few creaks from twisted metal settling back. I was lying across the gun sight and the canopy with feet scrabbling to find the seat to stand on.
You FOOL! You BLOODY BLOODY FOOL! You HAVE PRANGED!
It would not be wise to stay in the cockpit in case of fire but she was at such an angle that she could go over at any time. My eyes were becoming accustomed but there was no idea if the engine cowling was damaged. Nothing for it. I crawled over the mirror on the top of the canopy and steadied myself; the banks of the exhausts on each side still glowed faintly. I slid to the ground, holding hands clear of the exhaust stubs pleading that fate had not left any projecting metal.
I realised that adrenaline was coursing through my body and tried to work it off by walking as fast as I could in a circle round the aircraft. I was still doing it when the ambulance arrived with our new Medical Officer running beside me. "Sparkie! Sparkie! You are in shock, come and sit down!" He repeated it over and over again until I burst out laughing. All in all it was probably the right thing to do. When the body is prepared for flight perhaps a bit of rapid physical activity is the best thing. The MO was new. He was Indian, a little flabby but he had a sense of humour. I missed the my old MO friend but this one was to be with us until I left the squadron and eventually became almost fond of him.
It was my first prang and I just could not understand it, after all I was perfect; how could I prang on a night landing. It all remained a bit of a mystery. I had ended up in a Muslim cemetery among the graves that had tipped her over. The ground crew gathered up the 'flare path' and that was the end of it. The CO should have been jumping up and down and threatening courts martial but not a word. I was never blamed and have just left it where it is; a memory. A letter home suggested that he was partly to blame but in retrospect, just leave it as it is. Surprising that there was not even an inquiry. There is, however a Hurricane propeller tip in my bookcase. I stroke it once in a while!