This is the story of a 19-year-old Yorkshire man, my father, who enlisted in the RAF. He was a typical student who had recently left Drax Grammar School (known as Read School, Drax) in the West Riding of Yorkshire, the son of a woodwork teacher who later, near retirement, became the caretaker at the same school as his younger sons to pay for their education. A son who aspired to be an accountant starting with BOCM (British Oil and Cake Mills) in Selby, Yorkshire as a trainee but then, with the outbreak of war, he enlisted in the RAF.
Ken’s mother and father, Percy and Annie Fenton, taken in 1954, “after “mothers operation”, sorry, that is the caption.
Was Ken looking for adventure, or with the outbreak of war, did he just want to avoid the dreadful trench warfare that he would have heard so much about from the previous generation. The majority of family members were in reserved occupation during World War One so did not seem to suffer the loss of life of some families, but this is further research, and there is no doubt they came into contact with others that did and heard their tales.
Ken Fenton was born on 18th July 1920, in Drax, Yorkshire, one of 11 children, the seventh son of the seventh son, born to Percy and Annie Fenton, predominately raised by his older sisters as was normal at that time.
Ken, as a young man, playing football as a goalkeeper together with his brother Tom Fenton, back row, far right.
Picture of Drax High Street taken from the church spire, looking down towards where Ken was brought up.
It is a story within a story, encompassing many others people’s lives and endeavours and covers the events of many of the big campaigns of World War 2. Ken came in contact with many of those involved in these events throughout his RAF career and became part of the much bigger story, the History of World War Two.
He flew with those who were involved in the Battle of Britain, became a prisoner of war, incarcerated with the unlucky ones, or maybe the lucky ones, who were captured at Dunkirk, and he witnessed first-hand some of their horrific wounds. He greeted into captivity at Stalag 357, Fallingbostal, those who evaded death but were captured, during the abortive Arnhem campaign to secure a bridge across the River Rhine, intended to end the war by Christmas 1944.
Scenes of the evacuation of Dunkirk.
He also welcomed and helped acclimatise into the camps, the bomber crews who took part in the greatest bombing campaign the world has ever witnessed. The members of Bomber Command, these everyday people who did as they were asked without a word of complaint, with the odds stacked against them, who up until now have not been recognised for their achievements, barely written about, and only now being considered for the merit they deserve. Those described here are a few of the 125,000 personnel who served in bomber command, over 57,000 of whom perished, which together with the near 11,000 who became POWs as part of Bomber Commands campaign during the Second World War, lead to an estimated 65% casualty rate, the highest of any service of the British Forces during the Second world War.
The RAF Bomber Command memorial in Green Park, a ‘picture’ of a returning aircrew, waiting for the return of the other crews, who with down turned heads have endured so much, sergeants and officers, unveiled on 28th June 2012, 67 years after the war ended.
The bomber crews were proclaimed during the war for their achievements, to great accolade through the propaganda machines and described as ‘the means to victory’ by the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, until after the Germans surrender, when the true extent of the destruction, carnage and death toll was revealed, when to a man, the politicians, including Winston Churchill, decided to distance themselves from this brave and resilient bunch of men. How they must have felt. In fact, it was not until February 2013 that a decision was made to award Bomber Command aircrew with the Bomber Command clasp, not a medal, in recognition for their services but even then, this did not include Bomber Command veterans in other theatres of operation such as Italy, the Middle or Far East, etc., just those involved with operations in Western Europe. Up until then, their only recognition was the award of the 1939-1945 Star.
Many official and commercial books told of the heroic deeds of Bomber Command at the time, encouraging aircrew to join up and help with the bombing war against Germany.
Ken and his crew, together with his fellow pilot cadets, were told during training to expect to survive 6 missions but this did not deter them one bit, even though many of them would not come home, an extraordinary story but not untypical of its time. During their training, they were frequently asked about their next of kin and Religion on form after form, preparing for what may lie ahead. They regularly witnessed death first hand right from the start, a staggering near 8,000 officers and aircrew were to be killed in training accidents during the war. When talking to many vets., when the conversation eventually got round to the casualties, the deaths, they said that at the time anyone who did not come back was just considered to have got an earlier train and that they were all going towards the same destination, it was just, which ‘train’ they were going to catch.
On completion of a tour of duty, normally 30 significant operations (Gardening sorties or Nickelling raids – mining and leaflet dropping, etc. did not count but this was potentially just as dangerous so these operations were unpopular with the aircrews) an aircrew would be rested, which would normally mean a stint in Training Command, giving new recruits the benefit of their knowledge and experience. What was very noticeable to anyone going through their training or indeed, serving personnel, was the lack of bomber crews involved, more personnel coming from Coastal and Fighter Command. The bomber crews rarely survived their full tour of operations to be considered as instructors.
During the time he served with the RAF, as a POW Ken would have met with George Grimson, one of the most prolific escapees of World War 2, who not only escaped many times himself, but unselfishly returned too often to pass on information to the escape committee and who also organised an escape route to help other potential escapees to evade the Germans. Who, since his death at the hands of the Germans, has also escaped any real recognition or notoriety but had such a dramatic impact at that time. If he had been an officer, it is likely that films would have been made about him to great accreditation. Ken witnessed many escape attempts and indeed was involved in some himself, which again as non-commissioned officers, were not truly recognised.
Again, as a POW, my father would have known the Great Dixie Deans, who with the assistance of Ron Mogg, (also known as John Dominy, an alias for his book that he later wrote) managed the POW camps, which held the NCOs, where Ken was held. He ensured that all the prisoners were treated correctly. He managed the discipline of not only his fellow internes, but also that of their German captors, ensuring that his men were fairly treated and did not suffer the abuse that was experienced in many other camps. He risked his life on many occasions to stand up for his principles.
Ken was involved with the famous “canary”, John Bristow, the operator of the radio receiver produced and carried throughout the war under the noses of the Germans, which kept camp moral so high, enabling them to understand the truth behind the German propaganda that they were so forcefully fed. In the event of necessity, this radio receiver could be converted to a radio transmitter to be used to transmit a distress call should the need arise and call for help.
Ken was lucky to be only involved to some extent with the great marches at the end of the war in what has become known as the Marches to Freedom, when many lives were lost through the sub-zero temperatures, minus 32 degrees, in which they were forced to march with any struggler’s being summarily shot. Then, to his horror, after nearly 4 years of captivity, at Gresse, he witnessed the true cruelty of war when within days of its conclusion and their freedom, a column of POW’s were targeted by rocket firing RAF Typhoons, causing the death of over 60 of them, some of whom had endured nearly 5 years of incarceration at the hands of the Germans and who could now see the end in sight and their return home to freedom and their families. This was not the only friendly fire incident, but the one that would have affected Ken the most.
Can l stress, this is a story not about heroism but duty and patriotism, what everyone considered they should do at that time, to some extent driven by propaganda. It is not particularly heroic but through their determination and conviction, the people of this time demonstrated heroism beyond that which any normal person would endure. This is based on fact, not found in the history books but nevertheless includes at least four events which should be, namely 1st July 1941 and that particular loss of life, which l have covered here, the Sergeant escapers throughout German occupied Europe, the heroism surrounding a typical Londoner called George J W Grimson and the Scot Dixie Deans and the accident, for it was a tragic accident, at Gresse. In comparison with what the POW’s at the hands of the Japanese suffered, we all believe that the captive service men had a comparatively easier life under German control, which cannot be disputed but that is because the stories about what the POW’s suffered under the German‘s has not really been told. This in no way attempts to dismiss the horrors that the POW’s in the Far East suffered, but more attempts to raise the awareness of what happened closer to home. What cannot be denied is the fact that there were many crimes committed against allied POW’s, individual and groups and that one in twenty of every airman that fell into the hands of the German’s, forces and people, never returned home alive. This is a little-known fact that should not be ignored.
The way that the German’s treated their Russian POWs was barbaric, killing and starving them at every opportunity, so close to the main allied POW camps that their atrocities were witnessed by them all, but they were not covered by the Geneva Convention and their soldiers would carry out the same atrocities and worse as they marched through to capture Berlin.
Prior to entering muster as fully qualified Bomber Crew, all RAF personnel received training in what to expect if they were taken as Prisoners of War. Early on this was based on experiences from the First World War, however, as more and more prisoner escapees or evaders returned to Britain, this information became very useful and accurate as to what everyone should expect, in fact returning servicemen were sent on tours of Operational Training Units (OTU’s) to bring the newly qualified servicemen up to expectations.
This did not stop a very few newly captured RAF personnel from deciding for themselves, through shock or shame, that the Germans already knew too much and that the chances of Britain succeeding were so slim that they better help the Germans, in return for enhanced rations. These stories are covered elsewhere, and l will not dwell on this point but suffice to say, it happened.
Equally, upon capture, the standard phase, ‘for you the war is over’ is so far from the truth as very few POWs accepted that they should sit out the war, deciding to either return home or better themselves through education or recreation for when they could return home. Most aircrew considered that it was their duty to continue the war by escaping, not only to return and continue fighting but also to ensure the maximum number of guards were tied up, either ensuring they remained in the Prisoner of War camps or were out there trying to find them. It has been stated that this was the officer’s code of conduct, but in fact more NCOs escaped and returned to Britain than officers, showing that this was widely accepted by all RAF aircrew and other areas of the Armed Forces alike.
That said, there are two parts to the story that we do not know as fact, how it started or where it finished, why he joined up and where he was liberated. I am writing this with the premise that ‘My father would have’ rather than ‘Ken did this or that’, based on the lack of knowledge l have of my father’s actual exploits but this will give a very good insight into what a typical RAF flyer experienced throughout the war years. That said, this account is based on as many facts as l can muster, preferring to use others descriptions of events where l can, to describe what they went through, for which l and many are eternally grateful.
So, the story begins.
Keith Simpson recalls Ken Fenton telling him how he was so impressed when one of his former colleagues at BOCM (British Oil and Cake Mills) in Selby, Ted Cryer, returned to his place of work to show off his uniform, and how smart he looked with his newly acquired wings.
Was this the influence that encouraged Ken to join the RAF or the pictures and news of the returning soldiers, escaping from Dunkirk, the evacuation of which came to a conclusion on 4th June 1940. Ken was destined to form an alliance with some of those who were unable to escape from France or who had been captured during the withdrawal. He was also likely to see many of the soldiers as POWs in the coming years, many of them in his early Prisoner of War camps awaiting repatriation, who suffered terrible wounds during these early battles.
The Battle for France began on the 10th May 1940 when the Germans invaded the Low Countries of France and in less than a month, the British and Allied forces had been evacuated from Dunkirk. It had been costly for the British in terms of soldiers, pilots, aircrew, ground crew and equipment with nearly 500 fighter aircraft lost and over 250 pilots killed. It could have been a lot worse with many, including Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding, in charge of the British RAF Fighter Force, arguing that the coming defence of Britain was more important than any goodwill gestures in the defence of Europe, which at this point was probably and realistically, only thought to be a delaying action, as Britain was not prepared to face a full Battle with the well prepared German war machine. The fighting in France cost the RAF a total of 1,029 aircraft and over 1,500 personnel. In terms of loss of life, RAF Bomber Command’s casualties were nothing less than horrific. During the costly Battle of France, in one raid by Blenheim’s on 17th May 1940, eleven out of twelve aircraft from No. 82 Squadron were shot down in daylight raids on German armoured units. The one Blenheim which survived the action crash-landed on return to RAF Watton and was damaged beyond repair. The remnants of the last RAF fighter squadrons in France did not evacuate their bases, preferring to support the evacuation, until 18th June 1940, 14 days after the completion of the evacuation of Dunkirk, having provided cover for the final Allied retreat from France.
Unknown to Ken, Sergeant Victor Charles Salvage, someone who he would become acquainted with and who he would spend his last days of captivity with at Fallingbostal was already fighting in the rear-guard action, covering the much unknown continued retreat from France after Dunkirk, which was still going on for the beleaguered Scottish regiments and others, who were being driven South before the invading German forces in France. These forces were still trying to fight back, whilst also trying to find a way back to England and their story would continue for days and weeks after what is considered the end of the evacuation at Dunkirk.
Victor was aboard a 40 Squadron Blenheim, L8827 BL-?, when it was lost on 6th June 1940 on a raid on St. Valery. Prior to joining up, he was a student before becoming career aircrew with the RAF and I have had the pleasure to meet his widow, the fantastic Ivy Salvage, and help her find out what Victor did and what he went through during the war. Ivy told me that Victor said very little, a familiar story that will be told many times here, but what he did tell her, she found difficult to believe, until one day on Waterloo Station, Victor suddenly saw someone from the past, a fellow POW and his wife, who not only called him ‘The Monk’, a name he had told her, but also confirmed an important story that had been retold. Ivy took the stories in a different light in future but very little more was said. He tragically died in August 1954 in a motor bike accident coming home from work, leaving Ivy and two girls. Victor listed his next of kin on his POW Liberation Questionnaire as being ‘through (father) T C Salvage at 1A Vicarage Road, Eastbourne’. Ivy and Victor were known to each other through the family and got together and married after the war. However, back during the retreat from France, Victor’s aircraft was sent out on 6th June 1940 on a target in St. Valery, the aircraft being airborne at 08.15 Hrs from Wyton, but the aircraft was attacked by six ME109’s, it was shot down out of control. The crew were given the order to bail out and Victor Salvage landed in a cornfield in full view of a large German Head Quarters establishment and was immediately surrounded and captured. The crash site has not been established but Victor stated he was captured near Abbeville, France. Victor’s pilot, S/L Brian Paddon also became a POW, as did their Air Gunner/Wireless Operator Sgt Terence Alexander Foreman POW. Sgt T A Foreman was interned in Camps L1/L3/L6/357, PoW No.64. S/L B Paddon in Camps L1/20A/L1/04C but escaped captivity and was awarded the DSO for his ‘home run’ in August 1942. Sgt V C Salvage in Camps 20A/L1/7B/L3/L6/357, POW No.13076. Foreman stated in his Liberation Questionnaire ‘Unsuccessful attempt at tunnelling, Barth. Worked on staff of “Tally Ho” organisation at Heydekrug.
It is known that the Battle of Britain was not an influence in Kens decision, it had not commenced, the RAF reporting the first day of the Battle of Britain as 10th July 1940, but peer pressure clearly was, together with the view of the many bomber aircraft, sporadic training at this point in the war, from the Yorkshire Bomber Command airfields clearly viable overhead. We know that Peter Mayhew assisted returning Dunkirk veterans and that this had a profound effect on him.
What we also know is that conscription came into place on 26th May 1939 with the passing of the Military Training Act, but this was geared mostly at meeting the needs of the Army, but it did place an obligation on all men reaching the age of 20 to undergo training in either the Royal Navy, Army or Royal Air Force, and then serve 4 ½ years in the reserve. This act was replaced on the outbreak of war by the National Service Act but the age of 20 remained the age of conscription at that time.
Ken first approached the RAF Recruitment Offices in April 1940 at the age of 19, clearly that of a volunteer. We are unsure of the exact date this would have been, but we do his first recorded date was 12th June 1940, just over a month before his 20th birthday, when he stood before the No 5 Aviation Candidates Selection Board (ACSB) at RAF Padgate, near Warrington, Lancashire, telling us he volunteered a few months before he would have been called up through the National Service Act. The likelihood is, therefore, that whilst he clearly volunteered, he did so at a time to try to get some measure of control over the service in which he would eventually serve. At that time, conscripts were usually called up for the army, with only a few being drafted into the Navy and RAF, however due to the need to fill the ranks of the Army as a priority, the process for recruiting RAF personnel was closed at the beginning of the war and only re-opened in April 1940 so Ken would not have been able to volunteer much before the date he did. The time span here does indicate that Ken initially volunteered at the first opportunity in April 1940 so Ken would not have been able to volunteer for the RAF much before the date he did. The time span here does indicate that Ken volunteered for the RAF at the first opportunity in April 1940.
We are not sure of Ken’s motivation for joining the RAF, nor are we clear as to where Ken was liberated some years later, but let’s not let the lack of facts stop the story being told. What is written here are the facts, together with other people’s experiences, people who rubbed shoulders with Ken, through this period of history.
From the early stages of the war the RAF volunteers flowed in thick and fast, mainly believing in social justice and with a profound sense of duty, the majority barely out of their teens, but they would soon look much older. Many men either remembered the atrocities of the trenches or had been told about them first hand and so they would not want to join the army. The RAF was a much more romantic vision, and many volunteers put this down as their first choice, only to discover that they were then transferred directly to the army, this despite the shortages of bomber crew members and the need to rush them through training. The Battle of Britain was destined to start on 10th July and last until 31st October 1940, so the vision of spitfires fighting in the sky’s overhead is unlikely to have been a major factor in Ken’s decision, but it had been announced that the RAF would start to take recruits from the age of 18 to build the aircrew that they needed.
Ken Lister who trained with Ken Fenton as part of 56 Course at 2 SFTS, Brize Norton, said:-
“It all started before the war when the sight of an aircraft was an unusual event. When the sound of a plane was heard, we would all dash outside to see it fly over and pass out of sight. In my case, the dream of being an engine driver, which was every boy’s ambition, was changed into that of becoming a pilot. I was also influenced by the fact that the Central school that l attended encouraged boys to sit the examination for entry to the R.A.F. Apprentice School at Halton. Those who were successful always came back to school to show off their uniforms and tell the rest of us what a marvellous life they enjoyed resulting that many of us looked forward to following in their footsteps. However, when l was old enough to sit the examination my mother put her foot firmly down and said no son of hers would wear a military uniform as long as she was in a position to stop him.”
The two Ken’s were to remain as friends during the war, a picture of Ken Lister was found in Ken Fenton’s POW Wartime Log, sent to him in Stalag Luft 6, Heydekrug.
This shows the emotion following the First World War and the peer pressure, but there was also the fear of conscription and the lack of choice that this would bring.
Peter Mayhew, who also trained with Ken at the Initial training wings and learnt to fly with him in Perth was also at 2 SFTS at the same time as the Ken’s, but his inspiration was different. He spent two nights, Saturday and Sunday 1st and 2nd June 1940 on the platform of Cheltenham Station, handing out tea and biscuits to the returning soldiers, collecting notes to be sent home to let their families know they were home safely. The following day he wrote to the father of a girl he knew who was a retired Group Captain but had gone back to interview recruits at Padgate, Lancashire; ‘as l had not the faintest idea how to join and he told me what to do and exactly what would happen. So, l went to the recruiting office and Volunteered for the RAF air crew as a pilot’. Peter, however, went to Cardington for his interview and medical.
He went on to say ’At the time there was a great shortage of pilots, so l passed without trouble and took the ‘oath of allegiance’ in one of the great airship hangers, 800 feet long, 80 feet high.’ After his interview, he returned home to await notification of when active service would start.
These volunteers did not set out to destroy Germany and they were unaware of the destruction their bombs would eventually cause, but they were driven by patriotism and held authority in a high regard, despite the images of World War One. They believed in what they were told, this was peculiar to both sides of the conflict, and reflected the attitude of the time.
There were various propaganda posters and leaflets that encouraged the young volunteers to join the RAF, promising opportunities, learning a trade and excitement. Noel Monk wrote two booklets, ‘Taking Off’ and ‘With the RAF’. It is of note that the Army version was ‘Eyes Right! The Army of To-Day’ by Captain A. O. Pollard, V.C., M.C., D.C.M. to distance themselves from the Old Army of the First World War.
Following Ken’s initial approach to the recruitment centres and his application to join the RAF, he was called up and instructed to attend No 5 Aviation Candidates Selection Board (5 ACSB), sometimes referred to as Air Crew Selection Board, on Wednesday 12th June 1940 at which time he was told that he was being considered for the vacancy of Aircraft Crew and he was required for attestation. He was told that he would be required for about two to three days at that time but would not be required for immediate service and following attestation, he would be told to return to civilian life pending a recall to service. Upon his arrival at Padgate, using the Railway permit he would have been sent, he undertook two days of selection tests and examinations in maths, geometry, English grammar and composition, etc., as well as medical tests and tests for colour blindness, tunnel vision, night vision, further medical examinations and physical fitness tests etc.
This was all to establish his stamina and aptitude before he came up for interview in front of 5ACSB, when Form F2171 would be completed on 13th June 1940 at the age of 19, 7 days after Dunkirk. Form F2171 graded each candidate on their general intelligence, SMA3 results, general knowledge, maths and English, as well as the candidate’s levels of courage and determination, initiative and responsibility, interests in flying and ability in team and competitive sports.
The Sensory Motor Apparatus or SMA3 was used to work out the potential pilot or aircrew’s dexterity and ability to manipulate a turret, work a trigger and work out his reaction time. It was used to score his ability.
The Aviation Candidates Selection boards were tasked on recruitment, but the assumption was that the bottom 25% were not acceptable, whatever their grades or the grades of the others.
In Britain as opposed to the US, there was an institutional selection process as opposed to one using and basis of Psychology, this was more noticeable in the RAF than any other selection process for the other services. Here, the candidates were questioned whether they played sports, owner a car or rode horses or hunted, many pastimes that were more limited to the richer generation or public-school boy, these questions carried more sway than most. Language and regional accent also counted. The Aviation Candidate Selection Board consisted of a number of high-ranking officers, Top Brass, and a couple of civilians sitting at a table with a single chair in front of the table, on which Ken would have sat, quite daunting. He would have been asked what sports he played, which clubs he belonged to, etc. The civilians were analysing the recruits whilst the Officers decided on the potential of the recruits to be officers. Was this where it was established whether you were fighter or bomber material, Officer or NCO candidates? There were recorded instances of one of the officers pulling out a pistol and pointing it at the recruit to judge what sort of reaction he gave. In 1942 the selection board’s changed tactics to try to select the required number of pilots, navigators and bomb aimers.
Following this interview, Ken was told that he had been accepted for pilot training at that time and promoted to AC2 and given his silver VR lapel badge. Upon being told this, Ken was given the option of starting service straight away as an aircraft hand or being put on a deferred list until he could be put on a pilots training course. Ken chose to defer and avoided many months of ground duties, including peeling potatoes, etc. He was immediately transferred to Reserve on 13th June 1940, in his case No 3 Reception Centre, Reserve and was instructed to return home, continue in his civilian occupation, and await further instructions.
Signing on and taking the first steps towards joining the RAF.
Orders duly arrived and he was instructed to attend the RAF Reception Centre at Babbacombe, near Torquay on 5th July 1940, where he received his initial training at No. 1 Receiving Wing (1RW) whose Headquarters were at the Norcliffe Hotel, Babbacombe, Paignton, Devon. He arrived with a small suitcase and the clothes he was wearing. Here, they were fitted out with their uniforms, which were either too short and too narrow round the waist, or too long and too wide. The jackets fitted where they touched, and the boots seemed to be made of lead. They were also issued with a kit bag, one greatcoat, one groundsheet, and two pairs of everything else, forage or fore and aft caps, socks, vests, pants, shirt, collars, ties, trousers, tunic and rubber soled boots. No one was measured; everything was sized based on the judgement of the issuing stores men. If the trousers were too big, they were issued with a belt, boots too big, then they were told to wear an extra pair of socks.
‘The first stage at a R.A.F. receiving Wing, where newly-arrived cadets are receiving their full complement of kit and equipment before they start training. They have successfully passed the candidates selection board.’
Nothing was assumed, everything was checked.
They were also issued with a knife, fork and spoon, shaving stick, hairbrush, button cleaner and polishing stick. The next few hours and days would be spent making their uniforms look presentable, polishing the buttons and softening and shinning the boots. He was also issued with the standard bed, biscuits (thin mattress in three parts), blankets, pillow and bedside locker, all of which were very basic and hard. He was then directed to a room in one of the hotels on the sea front, which he would share with a number of other recruits. The hotel had been totally emptied of all furniture, curtains and carpets to protect them for after the war. Once he was in his uniform, his civilian clothes were packed in his suitcase and sent home.
They were also issued with their Dog Tags, one red and one green, octagonal in shape and made of a Bakelite-like or pressed fibre material, worn around the neck on a 38″ length of cotton cord, one tag was suspended below the main tag. Letters & numbers apparently punched in by hand, not via a machine. They were told that one was water-proof or resistant to salt water, the green octagonal one and the other, the red round one, fire-proof, giving them all a further point to reflect on as to what was in store for them. The Dog Tags noted the surname and initials, service number and religion together with the letters RAF, any mistakes were not easily rectified so were not reported. It was the intention that the red identity disc would be sent to the squadron or to report the death and the green one left on the body for identification purposes later.
Although he was billeted in a hotel, rather than barrack’s, the hours were strictly enforced by the RAF police patrolling the area and anyone caught outside of the strict curfew of 10.30 PM was subject to arrest and a charge.
Here, Ken completed more forms, undertook further exams as well as receiving a month’s basic training, square bashing and instruction in physical education. They had medical inspections, inoculations, and vaccinations on a mass production basis. Straddling a very long bench, the recruits were told to shuffle forward, being in a perfect position to receive their jabs. The bonus to this was being given 24 hours excused duties to allow the effects to wear off.
Peter Mayhew recalls being told to go to No 1 ITW at the beginning of August. He said:-
‘I caught a train from Cheltenham in the evening and at Bristol met another chap on his way to the same fate. We arrived in Torquay about 7.30-8.00 am and l asked a corporal outside the station where the aerodrome was. He said, “there is no aerodrome anywhere near Torquay and if you have just come to join the RAF you won’t see one for two months or so”. I did not think much of this and nearly caught a train home. However, we went to the Palm Court Hotel for the late breakfast after which, somewhat reluctantly, l went to Babbacombe where we were lodged in the Babbacombe Hotel. A lot of time was wasted being issued with uniform and weird kit and being jabbed for tetanus, typhoid and, doubtless, hysteria. These came with a solemn warning not to drink for 48 hours or so. However, the warning was valid because one or two people who ignored it were seriously ill for some weeks’.
‘On going into a fellow recruits room l saw a photo of a cousin and was informed she was his fiancé – sadly he was killed before they could marry’.
Peter recalls spending ten days at Babbacombe ‘learning the basics of how to salute, how to march, how to stand at ease, how to stand at attention and so forth’.
Typical station routine.
‘Pay parade at a R.A.F. Initial Training Wing, where embryo pilots and air observers are learning. The cadets are paid 2s.6d. per day. These smart-looking young fellows hope before long to earn their wings.’
‘Led by their drum major, Phillip MacLaglan, the R.A.F. cadets have formed their own band at the Initial Training Wing. The white flashes in their caps show that they are under training for air-crew duties.’
Whilst Ken was here, he would have heard about and maybe witnessed but very much on the fringe, the Battle of Britain, which started on 10th July 1940 when a German fighter Squadron first reported a British convoy about to pass through the channel. This German Fighter Squadron supporting a reconnaissance aircraft, was engaged by British fighters, but not before reports were relayed and a larger formation, including bombers, with fighter escort, was sent to intercept the convoy. This bomber formation was engaged by an additional four Squadrons of British fighters, even then the British fighters were outnumbered by 10:1. Additional Squadrons were therefore instructed to get air born and join the battle. Subsequently, no shipping was lost in this encounter.
These shipping strikes continued by the Luftwaffe with a proportionate response from the RAF over the next few days, with German seaplanes picking up downed aircrew in the channel. It was therefore a concern that these seaplanes, whilst clearly displaying a Red Cross and acting to recover downed airmen, were also reporting shipping movements and reducing the Luftwaffe’s loss of aircrew so an instruction was issued for these aircraft to be shot down.
On 16th July 1940, Hitler issued Directive No. 16 with instructions on the preparation of the invasion of Britain, Operation Sea Lion, and gave a final ultimatum to Britain to capitulate. The following days saw an invasion force start to be prepared on the other side of the Channel, but Germany had misjudged the resolve of the British, even though the rest of the world probably considered it only to be a matter of time. Germany first invaded the low countries of France on 10th May 1940, the end of the Phoney War, and their progress across France and indeed Europe suggested little else, with the surrender or France and Europe following very quickly afterwards.
At this time Britain had four twin engine bombers in its arsenal, the Blenheim, Hampden, Wellington and Whitley. The Blenheim had a capacity to carry 1,000 lb of bombs whilst the Whitley could carry 7,000 lbs, but neither were heavily defended with machine guns and they only flew at about 250 mph, which was very slow for the time, their adversarial fighters flying at 350 mph. The four engine heavier bombers, the Stirling, although planned in 1936, came into the front line in February 1941 with a bomb capacity of 14,000 lbs with the Halifax following a month later with a capacity of 13,000 lbs. The Lancaster would not be available for a full year later, in March 1942, but Bomber Command had to make do with what they had, taking the fight to Germany, with the limited resources they had available to them; all respect to the aircrew involved. Whilst the Lancaster is acclaimed as the most successful bomber of the RAF during the Second World War, carrying 22,000 lbs of bombers, ken and his generation did not have a choice and the Lancaster was not available. Losses, therefore, continued to be unsustainable. The phoney war was no indication of their ability. Due to unsustainable losses, night bombing became the normal duty of Bomber Command, but the Blenheim’s were required to continue their daytime operations with horrendous losses.
Meanwhile, back in Britain, it was clear to those at home that they had to fight on alone and at that time the only way to do so and kick back against Germany was through Bomber Command. A production capacity was put in place to provide the bombers and a requirement for recruiting and training pilots and aircrew was realised, but first Britain had to resist the immediate threat of invasion, whilst at the same time hitting Germany hard, not only on the invasion fleet, but also their production facilities and airfields in Germany and occupied Europe.
From the 15th May 1940 and the end of the Phoney War, Britain commenced their bombing offensive against facilities in Germany, a few days after Germany invaded France, but the actual effects of these offensive strikes was minimal. Learning their lessons from the withdrawal from France, night bombing became the preferred method but the accuracy of this was dire, although less costly in aircraft. A few months later a survey was carried out that suggested that only one in three aircraft hit their targets in occupied Europe whilst one in four hit the targets in Germany, in the Ruhr, one in ten, but this was based on the nights with better visibility, those without had much worse results, some, too many, only getting within 5 miles of their target. Even this was achieved only with heavy losses from the RAF, not a good result. Even with the introduction of the Lancaster, their ability to hit their target, was not improved and a study of a raid on Essen in March/April 1942, suggested that only 10% got within 5 miles of their target. Accuracy was left to specialist Squadrons. Even the heavily defended US Air Force suffered unacceptable loses during their daytime operations, and eventually suspended them until they had fighter support all the way to the target and back.
On 1st August 1940, Directive No. 17 was issued instructing the Luftwaffe to now start to bomb the RAF fighter Stations, aircraft factories and radar installations in order to gain the necessary air superiority for the invasion of Britain to succeed.
On 19th August 1940, a spell of bad weather prevented major flying operations and gave the British fighter aircraft a well needed rest during the Battle of Britain. The RAF moved their squadron’s around to give those most involved a badly needed rest. They also arranged for 12 Group fighters to fly south to defend 11 Group’s airfields whilst they were intercepting the Luftwaffe off the British coast.
During his time at Babbacombe, Ken received notice that he was accepted as suitable for Pilot Training and was re-mustered as u/t Pilot and he progressed on to No. 4 ITW (Initial Training Wing) at Paignton, Devon on the 19th August 1940. Being relatively close to his first ITW, the 200 recruits from No. 1 ITW, were marched down the coast to their new home and joined another 100 recruits who were existing serving airmen arriving from various units of the RAF. 100 of the recruits were assigned to No. 3 Squadron and 200 to No. 2 Squadron of No 4 ITW, being inspected by The Viscount Trenchard, Marshal of the Royal Air Force on 30th August 1940.
Torquay’s main contribution to the war effort was by providing hotels for the RAF in which to train aircrew. In addition to the RAF Hospital at the Palace Hotel, Nos. 1 and 4 ITW (Initial Training Wing) were formed at Babbacombe in June 1940. Headquarters were at the Northcliffe Hotel whilst the Sefton, Oswalds, Trecarn, Foxlands and Palermo Hotels were being used for sleeping, etc. Postings were made from Babbacombe to Elementary Flying Training Schools (including overseas in Canada and Southern Rhodesia) where they became pilots, observers, W/T operators and wireless operators/air gunners.
Peter Mayhew recalls that he was posted across to the other side of Torquay to the Hydro Hotel in Paignton.
From the first intake of 579 recruits in July 1940, a month before Ken arrived, almost a further 27,000 airmen were trained there before the Wing left Babbacombe. No 3 ITW also came to Torquay in June, its headquarters were at St. James’ Hotel (now Harbour Point). Further hotels in Beacon Terrace were requisitioned, together with Park Hall Hotel, the Regina Hotel and the Dorchester and Devonshire Hotels were requisitioned later in February 1943. St. Vincent’s Hotel (now flats) was taken over for use by the WAAF.
A fourth ITW was No 5, which also moved to Torquay in June 1940. Headquarters were in Castle Chambers, later moving to the Hotel Metropole, now the Cavendish. A full list of hotels used is not known but they included the Majestic, Seaton and Stanbury Hotels which were damaged on 30 May 1943 and had to be evacuated.
After the war, Ken maintained an affection for this area of England and many family holidays, and indeed his honeymoon were spent here, perhaps my father was quietly re-visiting the various places he had seen during his time in training, but this was not apparent to me.
The following is an extract from Winston Churchill’s speech to the House of Commons, made on 20th August 1940, which sets the scene for the patriotic attitude in Britain at the time.
“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”
“All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day; but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”
“On no part of the Royal Air Force does the weight of the war fall more heavily than on the daylight bombers, who will play an invaluable part in the case of invasion and whose unflinching zeal it has been necessary in the meanwhile on numerous occasions to restrain.”
With Germany’s intention to invade Britain, the Luftwaffe continued to attack military targets and ports around the South Coast and further inland. The first German attack on London actually occurred by accident when on the night of 24th August 1940, Luftwaffe bombers aiming for oil installations at Thames Haven, on the outskirts of London, in the darkness flew over their target and instead, in contravention of their orders, dropped their bombs on the centre of London, destroying several homes and killing civilians. Amid the public outrage that followed, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, believing it was a deliberate attack, ordered Berlin to be bombed the next evening.
The following evening as instructed, and as a prelude as to what was to come, about 40 British bombers managed to reach Berlin and inflicted minimal property damage. The Germans were, however, utterly stunned by the British attack on their capital, being the first-time bombs had ever fallen on Berlin, having been repeatedly assured by the Luftwaffe Chief, Hermann Göring, that it could never happen. A second British bombing raid on the night of 28th/29th August, resulted in German civilians being killed on the ground and two nights later, a third attack occurred. Bomber Command would continue these attacks against all odds and continued to attack Germany and the occupied countries, which slowly forced the Germans into a defensive roll, with fighter production increasing and bomber production reducing as the war continued.
Whilst the British aircraft industry was under repeated attack, they were able to maintain a constant supply or replacement aircraft in support of the Battle of Britain and the bomber offensive against the invasion barges on the French Coast but the system was struggling to replace the pilots and aircrew lost, either killed or injured and many trainee pilots and aircrew were rushed through and sent to both Fighter and Bomber Command with reduced hours of pilot training and very few hours on their intended aircraft, but this was to become the accepted standard for the foreseeable future.
On 4th September 1940, in response to the British attacks on Berlin, Hitler made his speech to the German people promising a sustained attack by German bombers on Britain and instructed attacks on London and other industrial Cities in Great Britain and on 7th September 1940, this would commence with a large raid against London, both day and night. This was a big mistake by Germany as it gave the British fighter squadrons and their stations a well needed rest, without which they may have well run out of pilots, if not aircraft. The raids on London, however, increased but so did the resolve of the British population.
On 15th September, now known as Battle of Britain Day, the Germans sent their biggest Bomber and Fighter force yet against London as a last push to overwhelm the last few British defenders and break the countries morale. This possibility was supported by over optimistic results of British losses reported by returning Luftwaffe pilots but was proved to be incorrect with a large number of Luftwaffe aircraft being lost that day.
On 17th September 1940, with the weather changing and the obvious resolve of the British Fighter Command and their ability to continue to defend the British Isles, Germany cancelled Operation Sea Lion indefinitely and resolved to bomb Britain into submission. Daylight raids continued until 30th September 1940 but the results on that day proved too costly to the Luftwaffe, and they therefore ceased large scale daytime bombing raids on Britain. The night-time raids would continue with significant losses.
Winston Churchill in his famous speech would later refer to the Fighter Pilots as ‘The few’ but in the years to come, fighting against staggering odds, the men and women of Bomber Command were to make their own sacrifice as ‘The many’.
At 4 ITW, for 6 weeks, Ken together with his fellow cadets took part in basic training with drill, more square bashing, PE, classroom work, cross country runs and long-distance route marches with full kit, etc. in preparation for the next stage of training. It was a ground school, for hopeful pilots, a course of 12 – 14 weeks in theory of flight, engines, meteorology, navigation, signals, including Morse, radio and the aldis lamp which ended with a passing out examinations plus various psychological and aptitude tests.
‘Cadets at R.A.F. Initial Training Wing are told of many stirring experiences by famous operational pilots, observers and air gunners (above) Flight Lieut. J. Nicholson, V.C. is relating an amusing experience to trainees.’
Peter Mayhew’s memories showed no real excitement:
‘Still no aeroplanes, but marching up and down the promenade learning Morse code, airmanship, how to conduct yourself in the air, i.e. giving way to anyone on the right and doing PT’.
The station at 4 ITW was on high alert at this time in readiness for a German invasion from France and anti-parachute measures were in place to protect the area. Plans were also put in place with a view to destroying any fuel or ammunition that would have been left during a withdrawal. Vehicles were to be demobilised by draining out any fuel, letting down the tyres and removing steering wheels. Each recruit was required to get involved in guard duty, issued with rifles which no one thought were loaded.
Peter Mayhew recalls:
‘One of the other things at this fiendish place was guard duty at the front porch of the hotel. They gave us a rifle which most of us had not the faintest idea how to use. I think they had the sense not to give us any ammunition. There was a long-distance route march with full kit, four or five of us slipped out after about a quarter of a mile into a pub and waited for them to come back when we rejoined for the last quarter of a mile. Doubtless marching somewhat unsteadily – l was 18 years old,’ with ‘scrumpy at 2 1/2d a pint. This nonsense came to an end about the end of September 1940 (likely to have been more like October as there were no courses at Perth at this time unless they were given some leave) when our Battle of Britain ended.’
‘The lunch-hour rule at an Initial Training Wing is “First come, first served.” The eager faces of the cadets indicate that their appetites are good. Practically every cadet carries his respirator.’
‘An Officer lecturing on aircraft identification to a class. Care is taken with this, for as the instructor says, quick and accurate recognition may decide “Between a dead Boche and catching a packet.”’
All personnel were trained in defence, fire drill, dinghy use and ditching procedure in Torquay swimming baths and harbour. Everyone was told that by the end of the course they would be able to swim and be capable of life saving, so plenty out of hours training at the local baths took place. Dinghy practice took place in the harbour, regardless of weather, dressed in Sidcot flying suits, flying boots, helmet, goggles, gloves and a Mae West life jacket. An inflated nine-man survival raft would be thrown in and turned upside down. The recruits were then instructed to jump in (high tide). Anyone who hesitated was “assisted” by the instructing flight sergeant, and then they were told how to turn it the right way up.
On other occasions, one cadet was instructed to act as if he was unconscious, and he was instructed to float around in his Mae West. A cadet would then climb into the dinghy to pull and another remained outside to push the unconscious man up into the dinghy. They were instructed in the use of all the equipment in the dinghy, flares, paddles, drogue, etc. The R.A.F nine-man survival dinghy was an efficient piece of equipment. When it was inflated by the compressed air bottle, not only were the two big rubber rings inflated but the floor, and top also, leaving only the doors to be inflated by mouth. They were told that with the doors closed even in freezing temperatures, body heat would warm the interior. This proved not to be the case for so many downed crews in the North Sea, but little did Ken know at the time, how important this training would be for the survival of him and his crew to be.
They also learnt the art of clay pigeon shooting and deflection shooting, anticipating a targets flight, together with armaments. Stripping down machine guns in the dark and naming all the parts. Ken maintained this interest in guns for a long time after the war, when he became a keen shot.
Ken is located third from left, back row, wearing a scrum cap.
Unknown to Ken, whilst he was training, on 3rd October 1940, Sgt. Edward (Ted) Francis Cryer, (Service Number 754166, Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve) died aged 20, whilst flying a Whitley IV, K9031, with 19 OTU from Kinloss on a night dual training flight. It is not known what happened to the aircraft but in bad weather, at 22.30 hours, distress flares were seen from the direction of Findhorn Bay, off the Moray Coast. The bodies of Sergeant Edward Francis Cryer and Sergeant Elton Arthur Dancer were recovered and taken away for burial, but Sergeant John Anthony Smith’s body was never recovered. The Whitley was later found but all attempts to lift the bomber from the seabed were thwarted due to silting and the prevailing inclement weather. Ted Cryer was the Son of Albert and Annie Cryer from Selby; his body was returned home and he is buried with other service personnel in Selby cemetery. Sgt. Dancer’s body was returned home to Ayr Cemetery, Ayrshire whilst Sgt. Smith, from Droitwich, is remembered at Runnymede, panel 19. Ted was also born in 1920, same as Ken, on 11th April and also attended Read School, Drax, leaving on 3rd March 1938.
No 8 Course Pilots of 19 OTU, of 22nd September 1940. Ted Cryer is third from the right, back row. Others listed are back row Sgts D Angell, D Bellingham, L Blackwell, G Baxter, E Dancer, E Pocock, G MacDonald and front row P/O’s H Hawley, Phillips, H Skyrme, B Kerwin, A Ogilvie and J Louden.
Image of Edward Cryer taken from the Yorkshire Air Museum
Armstrong Whitworth Whitley
‘Above are three Leading Aircraftmen now ready to proceed to their Elementary Flying Training School. They are devoting a few spare hours to improving their knowledge of German and Italian aircraft.’
‘A typical and fine example of Britain’s war youth: Cadets of the R.A.F. at an Initial Training Wing. Parading in flying kit for the first time before going on to their Elementary Flying Training School. (Photograph by Cecil Beaton)’
This picture is thought to have been taken in 1940 at either 4 ITW (most likely), 11 EFTS or 2 SFTS, showing Ken Fenton in his Sidcot suit, flying helmet and radio connections.
On the 4th October 1940, Ken advance to Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) and already re-mustered as a pilot U/T (under training) was posted with 112 other recruits to various EFTS’s. For Ken this meant a posting to 51 GP Pool (Group Pool), based at Yeadon, now Leeds/Bradford Airport. This was the administration Centre for 51 Group Pool, a paper posting, so it usually meant that the Pilot U/T were sent on a pilot selection course of about five weeks to a small airfield, attached to one of the manufacturers.
51 Group Pool was formed in February 1939 as part of the expanding training effort of the RAF, 51 Group of Flying Training Command was already responsible for a number of Elementary Flying Training Schools and Air Navigation Schools. This Group Pool also performed some of the initial flying training, borrowing Tiger Moths from EFTS’s attached to various aircraft production units.
As Ken was posted to 51 Group Pool, this actually meant for him a posting to 11 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School) at Perth, (Scone) Scotland. 11 EFTS was formed in January 1936 with No. 7 AONS (Air Observer Navigation School) following in January 1939, both schools being operated by Airwork Limited, who had moved from Heston Airport in Middlesex in 1935 to Gatwick as their base.
The school was therefore operated on a civil operations basis under contract to the Air Ministry until 1st January 1940 when all flying instructors and pilots were mobilised. No 7 AONS however closed down on 31st May 1940. They had recreation facilities in the form of 2 tennis courts, 2 squash courts and playing fields, including rugby, football and cricket. They had reserve landing grounds at Whitefield and an emergency landing ground at Scone Park.
Map showing the location of Perth Airfield, 3 ½ miles Northeast of Perth, identified by the River Tay 4 miles to the South, together with the nearby airfield and emergency landing ground at Whitefield and auxiliary airfields at Errol and Findo Gask. Tealing was to the Northeast of Errol.
Ken boarded a train bound for Scotland and was told to report to No 11 Elementary Flying Training School (EFTS), which he did on 5th October 1940, along with 45 other pupils and immediately joined No 32 Ab Initio course (Meaning starter course, training from the beginning).
Ken, together with about a dozen from the course at Paignton, were collected from the station and taken by bus to their digs, something that had once been a large private house on the outskirts of Perth, called ‘The Durn’. It was a far cry from the Spartan accommodation at ITW. Here their beds were made, and they were looked after by a caretaker. At the EFTS, the pre-war rules of a civil establishment made for a welcome change from the rules and discipline handed out at ITW.
Peter Mayhew recalls the journey:
‘We caught a train for Perth. Some of the journey was spent chucking, out the window, a fair bit of the kit with which we had been issued. Such a thing called a housewife, a frightful little rolled up thing containing needles, reels of cotton and such like which we had not the faintest idea how to use and no intention of learning. Also, a knife, fork and spoon and a dreadful tin contraption you were supposed to eat out of. After considerable discussion we deigned to keep our gas masks despite their clumsiness. And so we arrived in Perth the following morning and were taken to quite a nice house in the town which had been commandeered and then five miles out to the old airfield at Scone where at last we saw some aeroplanes – Tiger Moths.’
Stephen P L Johnson, on the same course as Ken, said in his book describing his training:-
‘In charge at the ‘Durn’, and responsible for seeing that we got into the bus each morning to go to Scone Aerodrome, was the dirtiest, scruffiest, idlest Flight Sergeant any Airman ever had the good fortune to meet. Never once during our stay did he polish his own boots or buttons and he didn’t care in the least whether we did or not. Scone Aerodrome had been a peace-time flying school. In order to convert it to a war-time RAF aerodrome the instructors were issued with uniforms, but little appeared to have been done to alter their habits. We went there to learn to fly and if it was humanly possible to teach us to do so they did: but they never minded whether we arrived clean and tidy or not. Mark you we were all extremely keen. The preliminary training, when we never saw an aeroplane and sometimes doubted whether we ever should, had been somewhat frustrating. To us the few disintegrating and ancient Tiger Moths with which Scone was equipped were a wonderful sight. The one terrible fear which we all had was that we should be unable to make the things perform their evolutions sufficiently well to satisfy our instructors.’
Enemy photograph of Perth (Scone) airfield taken in 1939 by the Luftwaffe. Camouflage has been attempted with fake hedge lines, but no one was fooled. Second photograph was taken in 1947 and shows a number of Tiger Moths still on the airfield.
Here, Ken was first introduced to the ‘Link’ trainer prior to his introduction to the Tiger Moth to begin his basic pilot flying training.
Described in The Courier and Advertiser, Monday, June 6th 1938, headed ‘Flyers will learn Bombing indoors, RAF Buys Perth residence.’ It Said ‘One of the most picturesquely-situated houses in Perth – The Durn, Isla Road – has been sold to the R.A.F. Volunteer Reserve.’
‘The house, which belonged to Mr A. E . Pullar, stands on the banks of the River Tay, opposite the North Inch.’
‘It is to be used as an instructional and recreation centre, and one of the latest devices for training is to be incorporated in two of the rooms. This consists of a cockpit, complete with all controls, in which the pilots learns, among other things bombing.’
‘Synchronised with the controls is a projector that casts the picture of a moving landscape, showing churches, houses, and factories, etc. Should the pilot deviate from the course that has been set him this deviation is at once indicated.’
‘ “Hits”, by bombs on this landscape are also calculated, the effect being that the potential pilot receives “flying training” without leaving the ground. Actual flying experience is carried out at Newlands Aerodrome during daytime.’
‘Wing Commander Hall, town commandant told a “Courier and Advertise” reporter that the Durn was to be used as town headquarters.’
‘ “We have an establishment of 50 trainees” he said. “I hope that in the very near future the establishment will be increased to at least 100”.‘
‘The building will also incorporate mess rooms and rooms for recreation, while tennis courts are also to be constructed.’
The ‘Link’ trainer was a dummy aircraft with a cockpit full of all the usual instruments expected to be found in an aircraft that was fixed at one point on an axis and was free to pivot freely around this point in response to the usual movement of the controls. It would tilt sideways, as well as fore and aft, to mimic an aircraft in flight and was placed in a circular room with the walls and floor painted to represent sky and land, giving the trainee pilot the feeling of climbing, diving, banking, etc. A hood was fitted to give the pilot blind flying experience.
Photo showing a demonstration with the “New” Link trainer in the South of England.
RAF pilots get ‘air conscious’. The new link trainer demonstrated.
One of the most important lessons which a new pilot entering the RAF has to undergo is taken in the new form of the ingenious “Link” trainer. The trainer is a dummy cockpit with all the usual instruments. It is free to pivot round its axis and can be tilted fore and aft. An innovation is that it is placed in a circular room with the walls painted to give the impression of sky and land, thus the pupil can go through all the movements of climbing, diving, banking, etc. For “blind” flying a hood is used to cover the pilot. Photo shows a demonstration of the new “Link” trainer in the South of England.
The trainee pilot would sit in the plane and with the hood closed would be totally dependent on his instruments and radio, all simulated by a technician at a control desk. Radio messages and Morse would be relayed to the pilot via a multicore control cable. The Link could also replicate various weather conditions as well as instrument failures, etc. A motor underneath the base pumped air and created vacuums, in various bellows, to give the feeling of rough weather and dive and climb. The Link was also connected to a moving platform on the operator’s desk which traced his course over a map to show the course he would have taken if he was aloft in an aeroplane.
Maintenance and operation of the link Trainer.
Similarly, prospective Air Gunners were put through their paces. The picture shows RAF air gunners in training at an air gunners’ school in England, showing a trainee familiarising himself with the Air Gunners turret on the ground. To give a realistic effect a tail-plane is mounted behind the turret to show the importance of not shooting holes in this too.
Soon after initial instruction on the Link’ trainer Ken progressed to the Tiger Moth. In Ken’s case this would have been the DH 82 Tiger Moth, a two-seater biplane powered by a single De Havilland Gypsy Major 4-cylinder 130 Horsepower engine, the Tiger Moth could achieve speeds of up to 144 mph with a range of 300 miles and an acceptable altitude of 14,000 feet, which first came into service in 1931 as a two-seater trainer. By 1940, 11 EFTS were operating up to 90 Tiger Moth trainers. The DH 82 Tiger Moth, with its open cockpit, would have been a true test of endurance for the trainee pilots during the bitterly cold winter months in Perth, Scotland, where Ken was to learn to fly.
Post Card showing the DH 82 Tiger Moth Trainer, notes on the reverse state ‘Flown at Perth E.F.T.S. 28 Hours Dual, 19 Solo.’
In the early stages of the war there was no need to cut training time and courses to fill front line squadrons but within the space of a few months, this was to change, especially with the fall of France in May 1940 when the RAF suffered its first significant number of pilot casualties, after which, the need for pilots became critical. As there were plenty of volunteers for pilots the RAF only wanted the best, those who could be trained quickly and easily, so the trainee pilots were receiving good quality instruction but were expected to fly solo on a Tiger Moth within only a few hours, typically 10, or at a push 12, to qualify for further pilot training, but nothing was rushed or skimped as plenty of aspiring spitfire pilots were being trained as well. Here at 11 EFTS, the ‘want to be pilots’ received between 30 and 40 hours flying training, 7 to 9 hours flying training per week. At 11 EFTS at the end of 1940, the hopeful pilots had a 33% chance of success and being posted on to further pilot training.
Stephen Johnson went on to say:
‘In fact, this (10 to 12 hours to solo) was a very fair guide to a man’s ability as a pilot. Few people who take longer than that make good and safe pilots however much tuition they receive. We knew that between a quarter and a third of our number would fail to go solo in the specified time and so be posted to other duties. We all thought that we would be one of these disgraced and unfortunate creatures. Goodness knows why we were all so keen, but we were, so discipline was comparatively unnecessary at this stage of our careers.’
Little did Stephen Johnson know the true failure rate at that time, but the Air Ministry obtained a lot of observers and wireless operators/air gunners and later navigators, bomb aimers and gunners from those who were not selected, a way that they could continue to fly, but many did volunteer for these other roles direct.
Peter Mayhew recalled:
‘We spent alternate days flying and lectures and duly went solo after about five and a half hours – l think. This was the greatest day of one’s life; no one sitting in the front cockpit pestering you and alone in the air; wonderful sense of freedom. Before going solo we had to have a test with the chief flying instructor. I failed to arrive on the aerodrome with him, either being about to touch down in the field before the aerodrome or the one after it. We had at all times to make a glide approach and landing from 1,000 feet. After this fracas my own instructor took me up for a circuit and bump. After which he got out and said, “Off you go and don’t kill yourself or l lose my job”.’
‘Everybody has a tremendous respect for the man who teaches him to fly an aeroplane. You have a lasting sense of gratitude and admiration for your first Flying Instructor. It is unlikely that you will forget entirely your first girlfriend but you don’t remember her with anything like the same affection and respect as you do the man who says, ‘Well off you go,’ on your first solo flight.’
‘I expect Sergeant Winning was really quite an ordinary little man but to me he was simply wonderful because he could handle a Tiger Moth with such unconcerned skill. On my first flight with him l was scared to death and thought, ‘God, l shall never be able to do this by myself.’ But gradually l became used to it all and even became accustomed to stalling and spinning, which we had to do before we went solo. We were grounded for four days from October 18th to 22nd by bad weather and l was terrified lest l should have forgotten all l had learnt: but luckily l hadn’t and on October 24th l was given my solo test by another instructor. I didn’t think that l was nearly good enough but after doing a circuit with him he climbed out and said, ‘Well off you go and do one circuit.’’
‘There l was without a familiar figure in the front cockpit. The green of the aerodrome stretched away towards the distant hills. After the cockpit checks, l eased the throttle gradually open and went bumping away across the grass. Soon there were no more bumps and l was climbing away at the correct speed with only the familiar sound of the Gypsy engine and the buffeting of the slip-stream on my helmet for company. Then l had a feeling that there was something missing. For a moment, l couldn’t place it till suddenly l realised that it was the fact that l wasn’t feeling at all frightened. I had always imagined that l should be scared absolutely to death on my first solo. I was quite amused to find that l wasn’t. I managed quite a reasonable landing and was as proud of myself as is everyone when he or she achieves a first solo flight.’
‘Naturally this called for a terrific celebration that evening and we repaired as usual to the Salutation (Hotel) where there was plenty of alcohol and some extremely attractive girls’.
‘I don’t think that l have ever in my life enjoyed a month more than the one l spent in Perth. We flew about over the wonderful countryside on clear October days. The hoar-frost glistened in the shade and the sun shone on golden bracken and stubble with the mountains in the distance. The Tay twisted its way through woods and fields. It was all something that l shall never forget.’
‘Even flying one of those ancient aircraft, which were designed before people fully realised why an aircraft stayed aloft, one experienced an elementary thrill which is denied to the pilot of the present day. He sits in an enclosed heated and pressurised cabin. His speed may be many hundreds of miles an hour, but it gives him no thrill. Our speed was only eighty miles an hour, but we were fully aware of every single one of those mph as the air rushed and whistled past our faces. If we glanced up at the ancient wings and the rusty bolts where they were attached to the fuselage, we saw that they moved up and down in an alarming way as the wind buffeted them. It is quite remarkable that these very, very old aeroplanes are still used today to teach people to fly. One might just as well expect to see a pterodactyl flying around.’
‘We didn’t have time to do many aerobatics for l only did twenty hours solo the whole time l was at Perth. I did get as far as looping the loop and felt very brave about it. The first one l did by myself l thought was rather good. I was just coming nicely out of it feeling somewhat relieved to be the right way up again when the aircraft gave the most horrible shudder. I glanced back anxiously around to see whether any essential piece had fallen off but all seemed to be well. Eventually l realised that my loop had been altogether too accurate and that l had flown through my own slipstream.’
‘We were very much spoilt in Perth. The carefree attitude and friendship between instructors and pupils was too good to last’
At this point, it was also decided that Ken was more suited to bombers, rather than fighters.
A bomber crew at the time was described in an Air Ministry publication entitled Bomber Command, which was issued by the Ministry of Aviation in 1941.
“The men of Bomber Command are appointed to fulfil a special mission. Their life is not that of other men – not that even of those in the other branches of the service. It’s very physical conditions are different. For them nowadays much of the night is day, much of the day a time for sleep and repose. Discipline is constant yet flexible…Triumph and disaster are met and vanquished together.”
“The captain and, where appropriate, its second pilot do the actual flying, the observer navigates and drops the bombs; the wireless operator helps the navigator and the air gunners do the fighting. The same spirit and practice of co-ordination is required of a bomber crew as of a crew of a racing eight or the members of a football eleven…”
This explains the frequent questions about sporting preferences and abilities asked at interview.
It goes on:-
“The bomber pilot differs in training and environment from his colleague flying a Spitfire or Hurricane. A pilot of the Royal Air Force is subjected at an early stage to a process of selection by which it is determined whether he is better fitted to fly a fighter or a bomber. Both will have to fly aircraft; both will wear pilot’s wings; but here their ways diverge. The fighter pilot is in action for an hour and a half to two hours at the most, often far less. He is usually led into the fight by his squadron leader.”
“Very different, but equally important, qualities are required of a bomber pilot. He must be capable of considerable physical and mental endurance, for it may be to fly for the most part of the time over hostile territory or across the unfriendly sea. During much of the flight he may find his aircraft the object of attack by enemy assailants can break off and renew assault at any moment. Surprise, that weapon which more than any other wins a fight, is theirs to wield at will. The bomber pilot must fly doggedly on, defending himself with the aid of darkness and cloud outside and with the skill of his crew and their machine guns inside. The bomber pilot must not forget that he is one of a team and that the team is not flying separated from him in another Hurricane or Spitfire, but the same aircraft, crouched over the navigator’s table or hunched up in the gun turrets. He must be imaginative, yet not dismayed by his own imagination, brave yet cautious, cool yet daring.”
Peter Mayhew described the training which they underwent:-
‘There was one chap on the same course who took a Tiger Moth up to 6-7,000 feet and put it in a spin. Unfortunately, it went into a flat spin, a hopeless and uncontrollable situation. He tried to bail out two or three times but each time was knocked back into his seat so gave up and sat and waited. A lot of us were watching this performance and the CFI set off in his car in the general direction of where it was going to crash. When he got there he found the pilot cursing because he had scratched his wrist while trying to bail out and had blood on his shirt cuff, otherwise he was completely unhurt. The aircraft had had no forward speed at all and came down like an autumn leaf. The undercarriage and wing-tip absorbing the shock of the impact – not much damage.’
‘We had to do a solo cross country. This involved flying all the way from Perth to Montrose – 35 miles – where we had to land and get our flight log stamped to prove we had achieved this fantastic journey – one way, and landed at the right place. Part of the training was instrument flying when a hood was pulled over the rear cockpit and the instructor took off and climbed away and then handed over the controls, telling you what height and course to fly. When to turn onto which magnetic course and when to descend, etc.’
‘We had spent two months at Torquay having the initiative and individuality knocked out of us or an attempt to do so. Now and for the rest of our flying training they tried to put both back in again.’
Whilst Ken was at Perth, visits were made by Air Chief Marshal Sir E R Ludlow Hewitt KCB, CMG, DSO and MC on 2nd November and Air Vice Marshal L A Pattinson CB, DSO, MC and DFC on 5th November 1940.
At the end of this course, Ken was recommended for further pilot training, and on 12th November 1940, Ken and 8 other pupils were ‘posted away’ to Brize Norton to commence their bomber training with 2 SFTS, arriving the next day on 13th November 1940. Six others each were posted to both Montrose, 8 SFTS for fighter training and Wilmslow where No 2 PDC (Personnel Despatch Centre) was due to form in November 1940 with a view to sending pilots over to Canada or America to an overseas training unit but this did not happen, so it is assumed that these six were sent to another SFTS for further training in England.
At that time, the UK was not considered as a suitable location for training pilots, due to the possibility of enemy attack, the need to separate operational and training aircraft and the unpredictable climate, so a plan was put forward to train pilots as part of the Empire Air training Scheme in Canada, Australia and South Africa.
The aim was to train some 50,000 aircrew each year; 22,000 aircrew from Great Britain, 13,000 from Canada, 11,000 from Australia and 3,300 from New Zealand. Under the agreement, air crews received elementary training in various Commonwealth countries before travelling to Canada, South Africa or later America for advanced courses. This involved the dangers of crossing the sea, the Atlantic, for instance, by boat.
On 29 April 1940, the first Canadian training course officially commenced, with 221 recruits, at No. 1 Initial Training School RCAF, All of these graduates, however, were retained in Canada, as instructors, staff pilots or in similar flying assignments.
This was not an option for Ken as it was still in its infancy.
Therefore Ken arrived at 2 SFTS, (Service Flying Training School) Brize Norton, Oxfordshire together with 8 other members of 11 EFTS, on 13th November 1940, just 5 months after his enlistment into the RAF.
Peter Mayhew recalled the journey:
‘We boarded a train southbound, probably about a dozen of us, ending up at Brize Norton, Oxfordshire, where we joined up with others from various EFTS to make a course of 50. Some of those from Perth had gone on to further single engine flying. We were on twins – Airspeed Oxfords.’ Peter was a big guy, over 6 ft. and wanted to be a fighter pilot but was probably considered too large.
The following morning, on 14th November 1040, Ken was issued with a pass, allowing him to leave and re-enter the base at 2 SFTS, but only whilst wearing his uniform and not if required for flying or any other duties. The pass was for permission to be absent from the camp between midnight and 22.30 hours, to allow the pupils under instruction to pass around the various training facilities and satellite aerodromes. The document was signed by then Squadron Leader A Adderley.
Copy of pass issued, 14th November 1940 at 2 SFTS.
Together with this pass, a ‘lucky’ symbol was also found, referring to the Apostleship of Prayer in League with the Sacred Heart, marked Veritas Dublin. No connection has been made with this so far.
Map showing the position of Brize Norton airfield, together with its associated affiliated and emergency landing strips.
First established as early as 1921, by September 1937 No. 2 SFTS had taken up residence at Brize Norton with large numbers of North American Harvard’s and Airspeed Oxford’s on the books. In June 1940, 2 SFTS dropped its single-engine work to concentrate on Group II (twin-engine) training with a roster of over a 100 Oxfords. Group Captain, Sidney Smith, DSO, AFC, was the commanding officer from September 1939. Ken would form an alliance with a member of his crew later in his time with the RAF as a POW.
The Oxford was used as an advanced trainer for over 16 years. A twin-engine monoplane, it could carry three men, sometimes four, and was a more complex plane than the Tiger Moth, hence a “step up” in pilot training. It was also used for observer, navigator, gunner, bomb-aimer and wireless operator training. Its top speed was 182 mph, range 910 miles and ceiling 19,200 ft. Unlike in the Tiger Moth, its crew was in an enclosed cabin.
At 2 SFTS, the trainees were issued with their Sidcot flying suit, silk inner suit and under gloves, leather gauntlet gloves, leather flying helmet, goggles and those floppy sheepskin lined flying boots which were superseded later by escape boots.
Also, at 2 SFTS, the training pilots got a taste of formation flying, of bombing exercises, and of night flying. They were required to carryon despite the all too frequent misadventure and sobering loss of other trainees in the too frequent accidents and resultant loss of life, amounting to about 3% or one trainee from every intake. They were far from alone in encountering difficulty and danger in the effort of RAF training, with the weather also to contend with. When they left, they would be either sergeants or pilot officers with their wings.
Many dignitaries visited the airfield whilst Ken was there including Lady Tweedsmuir on 28th November 1940 and the Air Commandant and HRH the Duchess of Gloucester on 3rd March 1941 accompanied by Flight Officer Lady A I Seaton to inspect the WAAF personnel on the Station.
Ken Fenton, wearing Mark IIIA goggles, which were used by the RAF from about 1936 onwards. They were used by some pilots during the Battle of Britain but were mainly superseded in the RAF by the later marks and were therefore relegated to the training institutions. It is thought that this photo was taken at 4 ITW.
The training, carried out in the Airspeed Oxfords, resulted in a number of accidents reported in the records at that time along with the death or injury of a number of trainees, either LAC’s or cadets, for example on 4th December, LAC Richard Mowbray Spencer (aged 19, the Son of Rowland Haslegrave Spencer and Mary Harriet Spencer of Chipstead, Surrey. He was a scholar of Stowe School, Buckingham and King’s College, Cambridge. Buried at Black Bourton (or Burton Abbots), St Mary’s Churchyard, Oxfordshire. His brother Peter Rowland also died on service) and on 22nd December (CWGC database records 23rd) 1940, LAC (pilot under training) Alfred Musgrave Potter Bickford (Buried in Willand (St Mary’s) Churchyard, Devon).
In his book about his RAF career, one of the pilots under training at that time on the same course as Ken, Air Cadet Stephen Philip Lowthian Johnson, wrote of his experiences in 2 SFTS.
‘One of the very first men in authority whom we met at Brize Norton shook us rigid. He was the Chief Ground Instructor. Before the war he had been a schoolmaster in India and in his own small way he must have done quite a lot towards convincing the Indians that the British were a menace and must go. When we met him he kept telling us that we were the most terrible course he had ever had to deal with. This may have been responsible for bringing out the worst in him, but it was a revolting worst, believe me.‘
‘His initial speech to us was typical. His manner was sneering and sarcastic. He wanted some men to volunteer for positions of responsibility and take charge of the two squadrons that we were divided into. “Is there any man who has ever been in his school OTC?” he asked. Then he reminded us that ground subjects were more important than flying and whether we received commissions or not was largely in his hands. Nobody volunteered. Eventually he selected a charming young man called Alan Evill whose Father was a high-ranking Air Force Officer to be in charge of one of the squads. From that moment on he made poor Alan’s life a perfect misery by his rudeness and sarcasm. Finally, he took a sadistic pleasure in not recommending him for a commission at the end of the course. He suffered from a peculiar sort on inverted snobbery.’
Alan Evill had lied about his age and was in fact only 17 years old when he joined up and had not yet turned 18 at this time.
CADET William Alan Strathern (Alan) Evill (1166733 to 102082, Commissioned as Flight Sergeant on 28th June 1941) PO William Alan Strathern Evill died on 19th August 1941, aged 18, whilst flying Whitley Z6564 ZA-Z with 10 Squadron. The son of Air Chief Marshal Sir Douglas Claude Strathern Evill, G.B.E., K.C.B., D.S.C. A.F.C, and Lady Evill (nee Kleinwort), of Winchester. The aircraft was airborne at 22.23 Hrs on 18th August 1941 from Leemimg on a raid on Cologne and was lost with all those on board. This aircraft was one of three 10 Squadron aircraft lost on this raid, all three shot down by flak approaching the target. The aircraft crashed near Rekem (Limburg), 14 Km ESE of Genk, Belgium, killing all the crew.
The crew of 5 consisted of P/O William Alan Strathern Evill, Sgt Kenneth Mervyn Tompkins, Sgt Cyril Patrick O’Dell, Sgt Donald Maclachlan Duffy and Sgt Thomas Hill Park. Park was an American from Jersey City, serving in the RCAF. They are all buried in Rekem Communal Cemetery. Evill in Grave/Memorial Reference: Coll. grave 1-3. Evill was born on 23rd December 1922, he joined 2 SFTS at the age of 17. He and Sgt K M Tompkins were only 18 when they died. This was Alan Evill’s second mission as captain, flying his first three missions as second pilot to Sergeant Aubrey Poupard, another trainee pilot from 2 SFTS.
Stephen Johnson continued:-
‘We lived in pretty uncomfortable huts with a small room each. It was a bitterly cold winter. The CGI (Chief Ground Instructor) inspected these from time to time and on one occasion the whole course was confined to camp on New Year’s Eve, the last one on earth for about three-quarters of us, because one bath plug was missing. As if it bloody well mattered. Of course nobody took the least notice and we all foregathered as usual in our drinking haunts in the surrounding towns and villages. Only one luckless man was caught. He was thumbing a lift back from Oxford. A car stopped. It was the CGI, Wing Commander Adderley in person. ‘Get in,’ he said, and not another word until they were back on the station. Then ‘get out’, he said with his most alluring sneer, ‘l will see you in the morning’.
‘After our Tiger Moths, the Oxford seemed a very powerful machine. You had to learn to control the swing on take-off by opening one engine or the other a little more. I had managed to go solo in an Oxford after about two and a half hours dual and felt quite confident about it. We were thrilled by our Oxford’s when we first started flying them, as they went much faster than Tiger Moths and had all sorts of new gadgets, like retractable wheels which usually went up and down when you pressed a lever and flaps which did likewise.’
‘There was no electrical intercommunication in Oxfords or Tiger Moths in those days. We used a system akin to those tubes you find in the walls of very old houses. Down these you had to blow at first and this blew a whistle incorporated in a plug at the far end; this in turn summoned a minion from some distant basement. In an Oxford you had a flexible mouthpiece which you tucked into the front of your parachute harness; the other end was plugged into the pupil’s helmet. If you blew into it it made his eardrums pop. This was seldom necessary however as pupils were unlikely to go to sleep while flying.’
‘The Oxford was a good deal more exciting to fly having one or two vices, such as dropping a wing when you stalled it. A week or so after going solo we did our first night flying.’
‘The first solo at night was second only to the first solo ever in exhilaration. On the night of my first solo my instructor was away and so another one was detailed to fly a demonstration circuit for me to watch what happened. When it was my turn he came to the tent to get me and found me asleep. Having got me into the aeroplane he took off and did a circuit and bump. The first thing l noticed was the bump on touch-down so was awake when he parked the aeroplane and said “are you happy to go solo”. I said l was and duly took off with great pleasure. When l landed the instructor asked me what was unusual about his circuit. I said optimistically, “nothing”. “Didn’t you notice anything?” he said. So l said “no” and he came back with, “at least you are honest – because you slept through the lot”. I said, “l was awake when l went solo” and he said, “yes, l gambled on that”.
Various raids were also carried out on the base during this time. On 11th December, several bombs of extremely high calibre were dropped on the relief landing ground at Southrop at approximately 1930 hrs, no damage was caused. On 22nd November ‘Q’ site was attacked at 2115 hrs. Ten bombs (Two heavy H.E., 7 light H.E. and one incendiary were dropped in the area. On 8th March, an attack by a single aircraft at approximately 2105 Hours dropped eight heavy H.E., four light H.E. and many incendiaries. This attack was preceded by the dropping of flares.
These did not, however, interrupt the Christmas festivities in Christmas 1940. ‘In accordance with instructions no extra leave was granted but Christmas Day was observed as an off duty day for as many personnel as could be spared. Festivities of many kinds had been arranged and although due warning had been given that HITLER might not be going to celebrate the occasion in the same way as ourselves; all arrangements were carried through successfully and without incident. Full details of the many festivities which took place are detailed in D.R.O.’s but these bare announcements give no indication of the measure of success they attained.’
On 29th December 1940 at 11.00AM, Leading Aircraftman Ken Fenton was involved in an accident involving Airspeed Oxford R6357 of No. 2 Intermediate Flying Training School, 23 Group, whose engine cut out on a low flying exercise. The aircraft was turning to port when the engine started to vibrate seriously and lost power, the pilot, P/O Douglas ‘Hank’ Iveson, was unable to regain lateral level and height from the turn, the aircraft lost height and struck a tree before striking the ground and crashed near Tadpole Bridge, 2½ miles South of Bampton, Oxfordshire. Ken at that time was receiving low level dual instruction. Ken received slight injuries in the accident, there was no fire on impact, but the aircraft was written off. No blame was apportioned to either the pilot or the pupil. This is not recorded in the Squadron ORB’s but l do have a piece of the propeller which was in our garage for a number of years.
P/O D Iveson went through training at 2 SFTS between July and September 1940 and was commissioned as a Pilot Officer on 5th October 1940 before going on to instructor school at RAF Upavon in October/November 1940. He returned to 2 SFTS in November 1940 as an instructor and took 56 Course through its paces until he left in April 1941, with the other students and joined 19 OTU. At least 5 of the course members joined him here. He married one of the WAAF’s from Bicester on what was to prove a fateful day, 1st July 1941.
Later, on the 30th July 1941, P/O D Iveson whilst flying a 77 Squadron, Whitley, T4212 KN-?, on a raid to Boulogne again was involved in a crashed aircraft. Shortly after leaving the runway, the bomber stalled and crashed, bursting into flames on impact. The crew escaped with little more than a bad shaking. P/O D. Iveson, Sgt W. G. Carter, Sgts Lloyd, E W Burgess and Morgan were involved. P/O Iveson continued his tour and soon became an outstanding bomber pilot. In 1942 he took over command of No.76 Squadron and carried out three low level attacks on the Tirpitz in Trondheim. When the war ended, he remained in the RAF, eventually converting to jets and flying the Victor and Vulcan V-Bomber with No.10 Squadron in the late 1960′s. He retired from the RAF in December 1967 and died, at his home, in Filey, Yorkshire in December 1997
Tadpole Bridge Decoy Airfield, named Chimney, after the hamlet to the East of it, was a WW2 decoy airfield or ‘Q’ site (Q66) protecting Brize Norton airfield. It was situated on river meadows by the River Thames near Bampton in West Oxfordshire. In operation, it took the form of a large array of runway lights, either oil fired or electrical lights powered by a generator housed in the bunker, spread out across open farmland in the shape of the runways at nearby RAF Brize Norton, the intent being to confuse Luftwaffe bomber crews into wasting their bombs on this site where they could do little damage.
Today the site is simply a large field with the shelter once used by the RAF personnel in the middle of it, partially covered by undergrowth and the original earth covering. The shelter is a three-room structure partially recessed into the ground and was used by the RAF personnel who managed the decoy airfield in times of an attack.
Stephen Johnson continues;-
‘When flying around and desirous of settling again it was always an exciting moment when you pressed the lever which activated the mechanism which caused the wheels to come down and lock in position. The previous pilot might so easily have given them a sufficient bump to bend them or there might be mud or birds’ nests in the works. First one green light would come on and then after an anxious pause, the other. If you throttled down without the wheels down and locked, red lights flashed and a claxon horn blared in your ear. This was because landing with the wheels still retracted did the aircraft no good at all and was much frowned upon by the flying instructors. It might also hurt the pupil pilot but the powers that were could bear that with equanimity.’
‘On one occasion l only had one green light come on. There was an emergency system and a hand pump. This had been pointed out to me but in the aircraft l was flying l could not find it, search as l would. I had only done about 15 hours in the Oxford at the time. The ground was nice and wet and slippery so l decided to land on my one good wheel. I did a good landing and cut the engine and held the wing up with the ailerons as long as possible on the side where there wasn’t a wheel. Finally it dropped and the aircraft slithered along in the mud for a while until it came to a halt. Funnily enough it wasn’t in the least bit damaged. The emergency mechanism had been placed in a different spot, as my instructor subsequently pointed out, but I was in no way censored and kept a clean log book. The instructor could write some very unkind things there if they thought that you deserved them.’
‘The Oxfords that sat around at Brize Norton were in every stage of decay. They were indeed serviced at regular intervals but some of them were like Queen Victoria, very very old. These aircraft would just fly with both engines working their best. If one stopped they sank slowly but surely towards the ground, filling the pupil pilot with a sense of foreboding.’
‘One morning after a hard night’s frost my instructor stalked into the crew room and selected a pupil other than myself for the first trip. They duly taxied out and carried out all the necessary tests of engine and airframe before starting off into the wind. The engines were developing their correct power so all appeared to be well. They turned into the wind and the instructor, F/O Osborn, opened both throttles fully. The aircraft went charging across the grass from one end of the aerodrome to the other but do what he would it appeared to be under the impression that it had no wings and completely refused to leave the ground. He kept hoping for a change of heart until too late, whereupon he charged through the boundary fence leaving his little wheels behind and ended up with his aircraft on its belly a hundred yards beyond. He and the pupil (Arthur Charles Sydney Innes) stepped out wondering why? The aircraft usually flew, but this one although travelling at nearly 100 mph refused to try. The experts also scratched their heads and finally decided that it was the hoar frost on the wings that made the difference between flying and walking, success or failure. It was not so much the weight as the roughness which broke up the smooth air flow over the surface.’
‘But at the same time the Oxfords’ engines had one very great point in their favour. They were radial or air-cooled engines called Cheetah of various different mark numbers. Unlike any other air-cooled engine that l have known you never had to pay any attention to their temperature and they hardly ever burst into flames even under the most tremendous provocation. If P/O Osborn and Alan (Arthur) Innes, my fellow pupil, had tried charging through a fence at full throttle in a Blenheim there would have been one almighty whomph and a cloud of black smoke. Of them, there would have been little left but their cap badges and dentures if any.’
‘When we had completed the first part of our flying training we were sent daily in a bus to a relief landing ground at Southrop for our flying. Here we huddled round a stove in a Nissan hut when not actually engaged in coaxing Oxfords around the adjacent sky.’
‘Instrument flying was an important part of our training. We had started on a link trainer at Perth (EFTS) and at Brize Norton we spent a considerable time in one. This was an excellent machine for simulating the conditions of instrument flying and quite invaluable: but it was not the same as actual flight, for there was no feeling of motion to combat. It is a funny thing, flying an aircraft by instruments when you cannot see out at all. You are faced with two alternatives; either you believe what your instruments tell you or you can believe what your own sense of balance and feeling of movement tell you. If you do the later you are killed almost at once. The reason for this is quite simple. If you blindfold someone and put him on a revolving music stool and start revolving him to the right he will say, ‘l am turning to the right’. If after a few moments you stop he will feel that he is turning to the left. In an aircraft if the pilot believes his feelings he will start turning to the right again to counteract it. I believed the instruments. Some people did not.’
‘Two of the latter were fortunate. The first, a fellow-pupil, (LAC Hamilton-Martin?) was a hopeless instrument flyer and got into difficulties even before he started night flying. He was a little man like myself and on this particular occasion that l remember he had borrowed a parachute from the tallest man on the course. He was flying around, presumably so involved in practising the exercise that his instructor had told him to do that he wasn’t looking where he was going, and he became involved in a cloud. Relying on his feelings rather than his instruments he rapidly became completely out of control and decided that something serious was amiss and that the time had come to abandon ship. So he made his way to the door in the rear and leapt out.’
‘From the ground we were interested spectators. We had heard an aircraft making strange noises from the centre of a cloud with the engine roaring or almost silent and we all went to the door of the hut to see what we could see. Then suddenly it appeared doing a power dive towards the earth. Just when it was due to strike with no inconsiderable force it levelled out, stood on it’s tail and shot rapidly back into the cloud again. A few moments later the pilot and aircraft appeared independently, the former attached to a parachute. There was a crash when the aircraft struck the ground and a little bump when the pilot came to rest, having nearly fallen out of his harness several times during his descent. The change in distribution of the weight of the pilot as he made his way to the door in the back had been responsible for the last strange evolution of the aircraft’.
On 15th February, LAC Hamilton- Martin, a pupil of Ken’s course, bailed out of his Oxford Airspeed from a height of approximately 1,000 feet and landed unhurt. His aircraft was wrecked in the crash. Another Oxford was written off following a crash where LAC Baines escaped unhurt on 28th February 1941.
Stephen Johnson continues;-
‘The cold during the winter of 1940-41 was sometimes very intense. Luckily we had been issued with many layers of garments for flying. By wearing these all day long we just managed to keep alive. When the thaw came thick mud lay everywhere and the Oxfords were up to their axles in it. If you tried to get out by opening the throttles they just fell forward on to their noses. They had to be towed out by tractors. The softer bits of the field were marked with yellow crosses and we had to land and take off clear of them. It would have been good practice for landing on an aircraft carrier because from aloft the area which was still serviceable looked quite absurdly small.’
‘During the bitterly cold winter we had little relaxation other than going out in the evenings. When you learn to fly an aeroplane you very soon discover that you have to be in extremely good health or you are very frightened. It is dreadful trying to fly an aeroplane with a hangover and nobody l have ever met did it more than once. Those terrific parties in the RAF were always before a stand-down when the pilots and aircrew knew that they would not be flying the next day. After the nervous strain of flying, and there certainly was a strain in learning to fly an Oxford during the winter under wartime conditions, you badly needed relaxation.’
‘After some time of flying solo we were passed fit to carry a passenger and used to go up with another pupil pilot to do navigation and cross-country flights. I was extremely lucky in being paired off with Arthur Innes who was the only pupil on that course to be assessed as exceptional in the final classification. I was at the same time placed as above average’
‘There was at that time a great shortage of pilots and the courses were being pushed through just as hard as possible. We were sent off on cross-country flights without wireless on some pretty bad days, with visibility only a mile or two and a very low cloud base. On one occasion we never saw the ground at all for about 2 hours. Luckily when we returned on our dead reckoning course we found a gap in the cloud and pinpointed ourselves not very far from where we expected to be.’
‘Being lost while flying an aeroplane is a most unpleasant feeling. When alone you are apt to panic just at the time when it is most essential to remain calm and try to work out where you are. One of the difficulties is that you can’t stop and look at the map. If it takes you about 5 minutes trying to match what you see on the ground with your map you have to remember to look for somewhere else on the map because even at 120 mph you have gone some ten miles. Luckily the South of England was covered with aerodromes where you could land if truly lost. If you did land as a pupil you were not allowed to take off again until your instructor came and fetched you. This wasn’t at all popular. Before the war and again now it is comparatively easy to fly down low and read the names off a railway station but just to be difficult they covered them up during the war and also filled all likely looking large fields with poles which caused little if any disadvantage to the enemy but a great deal of inconvenience to fledgling pilots.’
Peter Mayhew recalled:
‘We had to do at least two four-hour cross countries and l think two two-hour cross countries in daytime in which two of us flew together taking it in turns to be pilot on one cross country and navigator on the other. These were fairly boring and the amount of smoking which went on was incredible and even more so today when l think how highly inflammable the Oxford was. I went home for Christmas 1940 and took four friends with me – by Christmas 1941 only one of them was still alive.’
Arthur Peter Mayhew, Service No. 1165246 was involved in a flying incident during training when he had been in a ‘no low flying’ area and came back with a moorhen in his engine. When asked about the moorhen he had claimed to have collided with it somewhere good and high but was then informed that moorhens never go above about 2 feet from the water. He was therefore rebuked for low flying in a prohibited area.
Stephen Johnson continued:
‘About half way through the course we were interviewed by him (the CGI) for a possible commission, having been recommended by the flying instructor. The interview was sprung on us without previous warning. This was rather bad luck on Peter Mayhew who had taken the day off and had gone home having discovered that he would not be wanted for flying. He had asked me to answer his name when the lecture attendance was checked so it was also somewhat embarrassing for me when he later proved to be absent. I need hardly say he became a sergeant pilot, but it was The great joke. Everyone was talking about the man who wasn’t there when wanted for an interview for a commission.’
Peter Mayhew was to be involved in a car crash towards the end of January/early February on the Woodstock Road going into Oxford from the Trout Inn (burnt down in 1991) when he drove into the back of a parked lightless Queen Mary 60 feet recovery trailer carrying wrecked aircraft and was taken to hospital suffering with concussion, broken ribs and battered chest muscles. Due to his injuries he became a Linked Trainer instructor whilst he recovered for three or four weeks before returning to 2 SFTS to complete his training and then pasted on to an OTU at Harwell on Wellingtons. Upon completion of his training, he was required to deliver a new Wellington to Egypt, in formation with 6 other aircraft, leaving on 12th August 1941, via Gibraltar they preceded, flying very low to Luqa in Malta. During the flight, they had two passengers ‘At one stage l went aft to see if the “brown jobs” were alright, and the subaltern asked me if it was alright as the wings were flapping up and down. I said, “my dear chap, have you never watched birds flying?”. There was a notable mouth open delay until his face lit up and he said, “oh yes, thank you very much”. I hastily returned to the cockpit before losing a straight face.’
Peter recalled, ‘after landing at Luqa my rear-gunner complained that he was soaking wet and could not have seen a fighter for the spray’, indicating how low the aircraft flew. Dudley C Egles book ‘Just one of the many’ states ‘l well remember that we were very close behind the aircraft flown by Peter Mayhew of our Squadron and l was watching him from our astro-dome. Peter had taken the ‘deck level’ orders very much to heart and literally bounced his rear turret on the briny several times. I mentioned this to his rear-gunner after we had landed at Malta. Sgt. Bert Field, the ‘bounced’ gunner, was a true blue Cockney, (an ex Cockney Barrow Boy in his 30’s) and his description of the episode had to be heard to be believed.’ From Malta they flew to Abu Suier in Egypt, to await their posting to a Squadron. Peter was then posted to 148 Squadron at Kabrit. From here the procedure was to take off with a full bomb load and fly up to an advance airbase at El Daba airfield, known as ALG or LG 104, about one and a half hours away and after a while proving himself whilst flying as a number two to a competent crew, Peter was able to get his crew from OTU back. .
Peter undertook many operations, as described in his book ‘It started with Dunkirk’, and described how he was also involved in the loss of a Wellington aircraft X8349 on 1st/2nd November 1941 whilst with 148 Squadron via LG 104 on a raid on Benghazi Harbour and crashed in the desert, 10 Kms South of ALG 103. The crew consisted of Sgt A P Mayhew, Sgt Jim Bowman Second Pilot (injured), Sgt Jack Finlay Front Gunner, Sgt Jo Keenan Wireless operator (injured), Sgt Bert Field Rear Gunner and Sgt Norman Wakeham Navigator.
After bombing Benghazi Harbour from 11,000 to 12,000 feet, Peter decided to drop down to deck level and shoot up anything that was moving along the road going North from Benghazi, with a view of flying as far North as Tocra and then following the Desert track eastwards back to base. The aircraft was shot at causing a certain amount of confusion resulting in Tocra being missed so some distance North of Tocra, they turned East into the Appollonian Hills, where they came across a grass airfield, where they shot up some JU 52’s on the ground and generally hit the airfield establishment. Peter’s account refers:
‘We then cruised homeward feeling happy and contented with the night. All of which was shattered as we were approaching ALG 104 when we ran into dense fog extending up to 7 – 800 feet. This was all the more perturbing as we were very short of fuel. I decided to head for ALG 060 which was 25 – 30 miles south into the desert, hoping it might be clear there. However, it was not, so l turned onto a West-North-Westerly course hoping we might get back into the clear before crossing the frontline. I climbed to about 4,000 feet on the way to ALG 060 but after a few minutes with the fuel gauges reading zero, decided l had to get down to low level quickly; and then flying as slowly as possible, ease the thing down until we made a belly landing. Going from East to West as this was the way the ridges ran. So l stuck the nose down at the same time telling the front-gunner to get out of his turret as we were inevitably going to crash sooner or later. The speed built up to about 240/250 mph and l started pulling out of the dive to be straight and level at about 300 feet, allowing for altimeter drag and sink. We must have been just about straight and level when we hit the ground. It seemed an eternity before the thing stopped and l clearly remember peering into the fog expecting a damn great rock to come and hit me in the face. However, in daylight it turned out to be a beautiful level area. There was no fire as there was virtually no fuel and anyhow an enormous cloud of sand had enveloped the aeroplane. We all got out. However, it was incredible that the second pilot survived as he found himself running at 200 miles plus per hour and must have somehow managed to get hold of the grab rail and hauled himself up, as there was no floor under his feet. He was, however, severely injured. The skin and flesh of the soles of his feet being ripped off, back as far as the heel. I think we got the bed out of the aeroplane and laid him on that, then we poured some yellow powder stuff – antiseptic – onto both parts of both feet, rolled the skin and flesh back over his feet and tied it down with string. The wireless operator had hit his head on some of his knobs and was more barmy than Wireless operators usually are, clearly concussed. We put a bandage round his head and some of the powder stuff on his cuts. ‘
They were eventually found and rescued, returning to base, the second pilot and wireless operator, remained in hospital for a while but all returned to duty, being involved in many operational sorties before being returned to England.
‘They were happily flying along and the next minute they were hurting along the desert at two hundred miles an hour. One of the crew (thought to be the co-pilot or maybe the bomb aimer) had been stood next to him at that moment and, as the floor was ripped away, this guy found himself running along the desert at an impossible speed. The aircraft (a Wellington????) came to a halt and everyone got out but the bottoms of the co-pilot/bomb aimer’s shoes had gone and he was lying on the ground with his feet sticking up with the soles of his feet lying at 90 degrees to his feet, on the ground, only connected at the heels. Peter gave this guy a morphine injection (breaking the needle off in his arm!) and tied the soles of his feet back with some string! The radio op had apparently banged his head and was very confused.’ (running about the desert gibbering at all and everything – but no one took much notice because all radio ops were considered pretty mad anyway) And then they all formed up’ like we did at school, and had their photo taken in front of the plane. A GREAT photo!’
Peter went on to work for De Havilland’s for a while after the war.
Arthur Peter Mayhew, born 30th November 1921 and died 13th June 2002.
Arthur Peter (Peter) Mayhew died on 13th June 2002 but not before he had told his story about his early RAF career, between June 1940 and May 1942, to his daughter, Carol Taylor, who wrote it down in a book in 1991, edited by his other daughter, Erica Mayhew, called ‘It started with Dunkirk’.
After the selection interviews, those who had succeeded wore small white patches on the front of their hats and the newly appointed officers went to live in the officers’ mess, which had central heating in their own bedrooms.
Stephen Johnson continues:-
’Towards the end of the course we had to learn night flying. Before this we had a night vision test. We sat in pitch darkness for a few hours and then some tiny and extremely ill-lit pictures appeared in holes in a block screen. I simply could not see what any of them were whereas my neighbours were blithely writing down their answers on pieces of paper provided for the purpose. Something desperate had to be done and a whispered consultation helped greatly. Actually when l found the knack l wasn’t quite so bad. While staring fixedly at one picture and making nothing of it l suddenly noticed quite clearly that the one next door to it was a tank. When l looked at it directly it disappeared into the murk. That was the secret. You could see them much more clearly as long as you didn’t look straight at them.’
‘Night flying at Southrop was only just possible, as the ground was barely big enough. If there wasn’t any wind we only used to clear the hedge on take-off by a few feet and on landing we were within fifty yards of it by the time we pulled up.’
‘The RAF had another test which l am glad to say l missed. There really was a tank which they took from place to place and into which they put unfortunate aviators. There were little windows so that they could peer in at you. Then they sucked all the air out of the tank quite slowly. Well everybody knows you can’t live without air but these people wanted to see just how much air without which you could live. Everybody passed out, because they went on until you did. They then knew how high you could fly without oxygen, but as they provided oxygen for high flying l never quite saw the point.’
On 28th February it was reported that ‘A Spitfire from 6 M.U. made a circuit of the aerodrome complete with an airman as passenger who, through no wish of his own, remained on the tail. The Spitfire landed safely and the journey was completed without mishap’.
Also on the 31st March 1941, two Oxford aircraft collided in mid-air on coming into land, killing both pilots. LAC, Pilot under training, George Norman Strickland (aged 18, buried Fawkham (St. Mary) Churchyard, the son of John Reynolds Stickland and Kathleen Frances Stickland, of Hartley. His brother Alfred Gordon also fell) and LAC, Pilot under training, Lawrence Russell Horie (aged 19, buried Black Bourton (or Burton Abbots) St Mary’s churchyard, the son of Roy L. Horie and Margaret D. Horie, of Deep Cove, British Columbia Canada).
Other crew were killed in car accidents, including on 8th April 1941, Flight Sgt Kazimierz Kalat, (Aged 35) Polish Air Force and on 15th February 1941, F/Lt Donald Dean Gray (aged 41), the son of William Martin Gray and Annie Dean Gray; husband of Patricia Gray. They both died in separate incidents, both reported as being near Witney and both buried in Black Bourton (Or Burton Abbots) St Mary’s Churchyard.
Further, Stephen Johnson says:-
‘So gradually, with many ups and downs, we completed the allotted flying exercises and were tested by the Chief Flying Instructor. At last also the Chief Ground Instructor’s great day came. This was the written Wings examination during which, under his baleful eye, even l made no attempt to cheat. But then l had worked quite hard for that exam. There was too much at stake to take it lightly.’
‘At last came the final day at Brize Norton for course sixty-eight (Actually 56 Course). The following day we were all going on leave, the first since joining the RAF for most of us. We all had our wings up for the first time and we were anxious to display them to our parents and girlfriends but the CGI had one final dirty trick in store for us. At about four o’clock on that day he appeared with a sheet of paper for each of us, which required the signature of about twenty different officers in charge of all the various branches of stores, equipment, armaments etc. This was to show that we had returned everything that we had been using, like machine-guns and aeroplanes, before leaving and that we were not taking them away with us. Needless to say all the various officers whose signatures we required had left for tea and locked up so there wasn’t a hope of getting the required signatures that night. Knowing full well that we couldn’t possibly complete our lists of signatures that day, and so he had managed to cut our leave short by one precious day, he gave us a final horrible leer and slunk off to wherever he spent his miserable leisure hours.’
‘To give him his due although he hated all the people he taught l do believe he hated us more than any of the others. However we were a fairly resourceful lot by this time having been very well schooled in the art of deception and evasion of the petty regulations of the said CGI. It took us no time at all to organise that little lot. Each of us tracked only one or two of the officers whose signatures were necessary. Then we foregathered and spent about an hour copying the necessary signatures to our various clearance chits. Nobody ever looked at them and they were accepted without a word.’
Towards the end of 1940, the rank of Sergeant became the lowest rank for a flying airman. Until then Aircraft men and Leading Aircraft men were crew members of fighting aircraft although the pilots always held the rank of Sergeant or above. These “Other Rank” flyers received none of the privileges of Non-Commissioned and Commissioned Officers yet were sharing their duties and the dangers incurred in the air. This would prove to be a much greater issue within the POW camps in the following months. Shortly after he became Prime Minister in May 1940, Winston Churchill decreed that, in multi-crewed aircraft, the pilot, irrespective of rank, would always be the Captain of the crew.
This did not stop the discrimination of Officers from Other Ranks, with the Decoration and Medal system being a prime example, where Orders and Crosses, such as the DFC, DFO and AFC were awarded to Officers only whilst the DFM and AFM were for Other Ranks.
On 31st March 1941, the pupils of 56 course, including now Sergeant K Fenton, had completed their training and were mustered as Pilots and posted, in just 9 months from initial induction into the RAF. But what happened to those 37 trainee pilots?
Of the 37 students, 21 were killed in action, 5 became POW’s, 3 survived unscathed through the war and l have yet to find out what happened to the other 8 but it appears they survived. 70% were shot down, one of them died at the age of 17 (having lied about his age and trained to fly at 16) in charge of a Whitley bomber with a crew of 5. In two separate occurrences’, 2 members of 56 Course died on the same operation, and in one of these cases, on the same plane. Appendix to follow.
What was the average? Six missions as Ken was told?
A Copy of the record of 56 course, 2 SFTS.
Stephen Johnson maintained in his book:
‘Of the sixty odd men on that course about five are alive today. Certainly no more. The casualties in bomber command alone, and this was confined to Air Crew, were equal to the total Naval casualties during the last war. When you read that the losses averaged about 5% per operation you thought that the odds were fair enough. But if you take a hundred men and subtract 5% from the total thirty times there are only 10 left. We all had to do two tours of thirty operations, so that only one man was left at the end. That meant one hundred to one against getting through two tours. Some men were wounded or became non-operational for other reasons and about one in twelve of our airmen who were shot down were taken prisoner. But the chances of survival were extremely small. Naturally, we hadn’t got all this worked out at the time and anyway you were always comforted by the knowledge that it wouldn’t happen to you. But the fact remains that these were about the odds………………….. We were all volunteers.’
Later in his book, Stephen Johnson says:-
‘In the evenings (whilst training to be an instructor at Upavon) we used to go round the local pubs. I had my small car and Alan (Innes) and l set off after dinner on most evenings. One evening we met up with some of the men from the 68th (56th?) course at Brize Norton who were on an Operational Training Course at Andover on Blenheim’s. I think they had a pretty fair idea of what was coming to them. Blenheim’s were being employed at that time in low-level attacks on shipping in the Mediterranean and elsewhere. This was one of the most unpleasant of all jobs in the war. I later on met the only man of that dozen from our course at Brize Norton who was still alive.’ Was Ken this man?
Stephen Johnson was also later shot down on 8th December 1942 and spent the rest of the war in Stalag Luft 3, from where he wrote a book on fishing, called ‘Fishing from Afar’, which was first published in 1947.
On 12th April 1941, Ken together with Alan Fuller and Robert McDonald were posted to and joined 13 OTU, Operational Training Unit, at Bicester, Oxfordshire and formed up as a crew for the first time. The crews were self-chosen with all the Pilots, Observers and Wireless Operators/Air Gunners being placed in one room and being told to sort themselves out into crews. This seems a very haphazard way of selecting a crew but this may have been down to someone that they knew from basic training or their home town, or may simply have occurred from catching another’s eye, stature, location in the room, etc., but the resulting combination could mean life or death. It was a lottery. It was however not until the new pilots were considered proficient in handling their aircraft both by day and night that they were entrusted to fly with a crew of their own. At this point in the war whilst the observer was seen as the second in command, he was only called in to carryout tasks at the request of the pilot such as navigation, bomb aiming, etc., and the pilot remained principally in charge of navigation. It was not until 1942 that the category of Navigator would be introduced specifically for this role on the heavy bombers that would become so important in taking the war to Germany, allowing the other disciplines of Bomb aimer, Air Gunner and Engineer to follow.
At an Operational Training Unit or OTU, the intent was to bring a crew together and train them to fly as a crew sufficiently well, that on completion of the course, they were considered proficient for an operational squadron. 13 OTU was the last step before reaching a front-line Squadron and the crew’s training began in earnest.
RAF Bicester in Oxfordshire was home to 13 Operational Training Unit, which had been formed on 7th April 1940 to train Blenheim crews within No 6 Group, from the No 2 Group pool, transferring to No 7 Group on 15th July 1940. It comprised No’s. 104 and 108 Squadrons equipped with Blenheim’s and Anson’s, initially training Blenheim Crews for daylight operations, but its role was later extended to include night intruder training and by mid-1941, their equipment roster included a large contingent of Blenheim IV’s. In 1940/1941 there were only two Blenheim OTU’s, both intended to supply trained crews to No.2 Group, Bomber Command Light Bomber force. They were 13 OTU at Bicester and 17 OTU at Upwood. Each of these OTUs was designed to train 60 full crews (3 men each) during a six week course of 60 flying hours but by May 1941 these two OTUs had been slightly increased in size, although production of crews was reduced, with 13 OTU only producing 16 crews in May 1941, and 17 OTU just 14 crews, but this was being supplemented by crews being trained overseas, which in some measure explains why the ‘home grown’ crews had reduced in number. Considering, however, the losses being suffered by the Blenheim squadrons in all theatres, these numbers seems hardly adequate. 17 OTU at this time was also planning to convert to Wellingtons in August/September 1941.
At the time Ken joined 13 OTU, it was the practice to issue older and well used aircrafts, usually of the current service type, to these training units and this continued well into the war. They had an establishment of about a third Blenheim mark I’s and two thirds mark IV’s, plus a dozen or so Anson’s. The serviceability of the aircraft in these non-frontline stations remained an issue, using these now non-operational aircraft and aircraft types to train, which lead to many accidents and deaths, with both the Anson’s and Blenheim’s retaining a well below 80% serviceability level throughout this period, in April, dropping to 69.2% and 61% respectively.
Instructors at OTUs were in the vast majority of cases pilots or aircrew who had completed a tour already so were being rested before going operational again. One such instructor was Sgt Frank Harbord, who Ken and crew would fly with on operational duties later on, who we will hear about later, having arrived in October 1940. W/O Bucknell was the station Warrant Officer, Group Captain Bowen-Buscarlet the Station Commander and Wing Commander Sinclair the Chief Instructor.
In the early stages of the war and well into 1942 and even 1943, none of these personnel had much, or in most cases, any experience in instructing, but simply did their best according to their own abilities so it is to their credit that the crews they turned out were as good as they were. However, it is well known that the squadrons of Bomber Command in the early days of 1940 and 1941 were constantly suffering with the poor standard of the new crews coming forward from the OTUs, and the Commanding Officers at these squadrons simply refused to send these crews on operations until they had reached the minimal standards that they considered necessary for these crew to carry out their duties and remain relatively safe.
Map showing RAF Bicester and associated airfields.
On the 16th April 1941, No. 32 Course, comprising 20 crews, including Ken Fenton, Alan Fuller and Robert McDonald, was formed, initially commencing their training in the Ground Centre, learning the ropes.
On the same day, Blenheim V5881 together with 3 crew members, Sgts. Cyril Walter Kerridge (aged 28, the son of Walter William John and Lily Julia Kerridge, of East Harling, Norfolk), Peter James Cross and Geoffrey Ernest Cook (aged 21, the son of Harry Ernest Cook, and of Millie Cook, of Handsworth, Birmingham), were reported missing whilst on a cross-country night navigation exercise. Nothing further was heard of them and it is presumed that they suffered engine failure and came down in the sea between Rhyl and the Isle of Man. All three are commemorated on the Runnymede memorial. A warm welcome was probably not assured following this accident for Ken, Alan and Robert.
Later, on 22nd April 1941 Blenheim Mk I L1216 piloted by P/O Albert Sabine (Husband of Marjorie May Sabine, of Bradford, Yorkshire) took off from Bicester as part formation training and at the end of the exercise, the formation leader indicated by hand for P/O Sabine to break off and land at Great Massingham airfield, in Norfolk. Sabine was seen to climb and it is assumed that he lost control as the aircraft dived from about 2,000 feet and crashed in the middle of the road in Little Massingham Village. No one other than the pilot was hurt in the accident, the aircraft was burnt out and the pilot killed. P/O A Sabine is buried in West Malling, St Mary’s Churchyard, Kent.
No. 32 Course was posted from G.I.C. (Ground Instruction Centre) to “A” Flight on the 30th April 1941, which for Ken and his new crew meant a transfer to RAF Great Massingham, where they would commence the training of the Blenheim crews for daylight and night time operations, carrying out cross county flights, practice bombing, map reading exercises and formation flying practice, initially on Anson’s but then the Blenheim. Ken would have been required to practice night circuits, initially in an Anson but then progressing to the Blenheim before being allowed to take his crew up for the first time.
RAF Great Massingham would be a great deal of difference to RAF Bicester, the airfield was built as a satellite airfield of RAF West Raynham in 1940 and would therefore resemble more the satellite airfields attached to RAF Bicester. It had three grass airfields in the traditional “A” pattern and was positioned near to and indeed part of the village. No gates or fences separated the two, there were no restrictions and it was seen as a ‘homely’ airfield with close association to the village.
Having no concrete runways and very little hard standing, the grass could quickly turn to mud and indeed did with the frequent traffic of aircraft, machines, bicycles and feet passing over it. The service huts consisted of administration blocks and mess buildings only, the aircrew being housed in nearby accommodation, local houses, the main hall or even the pub or over at West Raynham, travelling between airfields each day by motor vehicle or bicycle. But with the slightest rain, mud would have been ever present. This had been the reason for “A” Flight being moved to Great Massingham in the first place as whilst RAF Bicester had very good administration units and concrete hard standings, the airfields, like its satellites, were grass and excessive rain had rendered them useless.
The crew were then required to carry out night flying operations and cross country flights to hone their skills before moving onto operational squadrons.
J K (Keith) Simpson recalls that as a pupil at Drax Grammar school, he:-
‘Witnessed with envy at about 8.30 AM on a glorious summers morning, Ken ‘Buzzing’ Drax village. Whilst going through the village to the Grammar school we, the school boys and many of the villagers, were entertained by the aerobatics of a Blenheim bomber sweeping low over the Church tower, banking and returning for several ‘strikes’.
‘All the villagers and the older schoolboys who knew Ken were sure that it was him, as they had followed his RAF career with interest and this was later confirmed by Ken’s father.’
Ken later told him that:
‘The Drax ‘Fly Past’ was well remembered as cross country flight, testing navigational skills and endurance. These were a feature of OTU training and on one of these, he followed a familiar route, recognising landmarks, and wanted to show his family and friends his new aeroplane.’
The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Drax, Yorkshire as painted by Ken from memory in his YMCA log as a POW.
The Bristol Blenheim Mk IV, Powered by two Bristol Mercury air-cooled radial engines.
“A” Flight under the command of Acting Squadron Leader D M Scivier, part of 13 OTU with 13 Blenheim’s moved on 3rd April 1941 to Great Massingham from Oulton, having been sent there as flying from Bicester was restricted as the airfield and their satellites were waterlogged. Squadron Leader Donald William Scivier was a no nonsense commander, who as a Wing Commander with 105 Squadron was to meet his death when flying from Luqa airfield on 22nd September 1941, when with five other Blenheim’s attacking German Barracks on the North African Coast he performed a tight turn and flew too close below another Blenheim, resulting in the propellers of the plane above scything through the fuselage of his aircraft. The other aircraft piloted by Sergeant Williams also sustained considerable damage and had to be nursed on a nerve-wracking 218 mile flight back to Luqa. Wing Commander Scivier’s aircraft crashed, killing all the crew. Donald William Scivier (43073) is buried in Tripoli War Cemetery, together with the other two crew members, Flight Sergeant Leonard Martin Barnett and Flight Sergeant Brian Gray.
At 13 OTU and later at their squadrons, the aircrew received very specific training in the event of being shot down over enemy territory and what to expect, including in May 1941, lectures on how to behave in the event of capture, escape and evasion and special interrogation by the Enemy, see details under Dulag Luft. Whilst here, the pilots under training and crew were taught the line, ‘beware of the Hun in the sun – beware of the goon in the moon’. Little did they know how this would be used later by the term ‘Goon in the block’ to announce the presence of German’s in the prisoner of war camps.
3rd May 1941, Sgt. Donald Allen Benjamin Statton (aged 25, the son of Benjamin Allan Statton and Effie Maud Statton; husband of Phyllis Statton (nee Howells), of Hammersmith, London) was carrying out practice solo circuits and landings at Bicester and whilst banking and preparing to land appears to have stalled the aircraft, Blenheim VI N6228, when coming into land, crashed and received fatal injuries. The aircraft was written off. Sgt D A B Statton is buried in Llantrisant (Trane) Cemetery, Glamorganshire.
The Satellite aerodrome at Hinton-in-the-Hedges became serviceable on 5th May 1941 and remained so for the rest of the month. This, coupled with improved weather conditions, resulted in a considerable increase in flying hours. “D” Flight commencing operations from here on 5th May 1941, under the command of Squadron Leader Rotherham, who arrived from 110 Squadron on 7th May 1941.
“A” Flight however remained over at Great Massingham and on 6th May the airfield there was bombed, at the time that one member of “A” Flight, Sergeant Peter Bartlett was just about to make his first night solo flight from Great Massingham in a short nosed Blenheim I, news that he had received from the publican of the local pub in Great Massingham the night before, something he was not looking forward to as he had already suffered a near miss in his first night solo flight in an Oxford. And so Sergeant Bartlett sat at the controls waiting for instructions from “A” Flight Squadron Leader D. W. Scivier, with another Blenheim taxiing ready to take off, with all their lights turned off. As Sergeant Bartlett waited to take off, the Blenheim in front took off and climbed into the night sky with the third Blenheim clearly audible turning on its circuit but then a third airborne aircraft was heard. Bartlett commented to Scivier that he could hear three aircraft in the circuit, to which he replied “So do l, l expect it’s an intruder.” at which point the intruder made its attack, straddling the flare path with its 4 bomb load, missing everything vital, after which one of the Blenheim’s in the circuit came into land unaware of the danger.
As Confucius said “Only birds and fools fly, and birds don’t fly at night”.
The next day, on 7th May, “A” Flight pilots in their serviceable Blenheim’s ‘beat-up’ the fields and village.
When Ken and his crew arrived at Bicester a few weeks before, they had been housed in the purpose built aircrew accommodation, the Sergeants being split from the Officers as was normal on an RAF station. Bicester had good accommodation, much better than other airfield as it was more permanent as Bicester had been an RAF station before the war. The aircrew were housed in barrack rooms with 24 beds, each as you would expect in any RAF station, consisted of a bed with the required biscuit mattress, packed with horsehair that made an ideal chair during daytime, but stretched out, formed a bed at night. Each NCO had a tall metal wardrobe, a box that fitted under the bed and a bed side locker with two shelves. The aircrew men’s belongings were slim, allowing him to pack very quickly. The accommodation was split from the main hangers and airfield by the Bicester to Buckingham Road and it was not until the 8th May that the Officers mess moved into the new mess on the Buckingham Road which now had a protected roof and was designed to hold up to 70 Officers, but this would not have been available for the NCO’s.
On 10th and 12th May 1941 further night attacks by enemy aircraft at Great Massingham were reported with little damage but sure to keep the aircrew awake.
“A” Flight and 32 Course, including Ken Fenton and crew, returned to Bicester from RAF Station Massingham on 13th May 1941. A few days later on 22nd May 1941, RAF Bicester was inspected by the Inspector General, Air Chief Marshall, Sir Edgar Ludlow-Hewitt, KCB, CMG, DCO, MC. Ken had witnessed a similar inspection at Perth by Lulow-Hewitt.
In his book ‘An Electrician Goes To War’ by Ken Whittle he describes when, as WO/AG, he was posted with the rest of his crew to 13 OTU from 139 Squadron at Horsham St. Faith, following the completion of 48 missions, normally a tour of 50 missions but these were gruelling times. Ken Whittle’s crew was led by Sgt McPhee Sgt Geoff
“The duel role of the Blenheim navigator and wireless operator on operations at 13 OTU was put to good use. The choice of instructing on the Avro Anson as navigators, or instructing in the E-Flight bombing section on Blenheims. The (Resting) wireless operators worked as WT instructors on the same Ansons used by the navigators at the satellite airfield. Or with E-Flight as gunnery instructors on Mk.1 short nosed Blenheims, using the twin Browning Bristol turret. I opted for the latter – not that I was knowledgeable enough to teach others, more in the selfish hope that I could gain experience from others’ mistakes? I was very satisfied with my WT operating ability, not so with the new twin Browning Bristol turret as proved on operations. Geoff opted for navigational instructing: who more qualified to do so with the Operational Training Flight using Mk.IV Blenheims? This was the flight where the trainees met as a crew for the first time, the final training before joining a squadron. Tom McPhee completed a flying instructors’ course to join the Blenheim dual conversion A-Flight of handpicked pilots. Geoff would also complete an instructors’ course to become a Navigator Leader.”
30th May 1941 saw a gas defence exercise being carried out at Bicester between 0900 hours and 1800 hours, the chief object of which was to test the efficiency of communication around the airfield following the presence of gas. The station remained at Invasion Alert No 3 throughout Ken’s stay at Bicester.
At 01.20 Hours on 12th June 1941, an unidentified enemy aircraft dived from about 800ft and machine gunned Hinton-in-the-Hedges satellite airfield. No casualties were sustained, but one aircraft was on the ground and suffered slight damage.
On the same day, 12th June 1941, Sgt. William (Bill) Wrightson Hall was second pilot on board a 99 Squadron Wellington, P9281 LN-?, on a raid on Dusseldorf from Waterbeach, he was wounded when it was shot down by a night fighter and taken to hospital. Together with Sgt. D H Harley who was very badly wounded with shrapnel in his back, they were the only survivors from this aircraft. Those aircrew lost were Sgt J A Barron, Sgt J A S Reid, Sgt A E Hibbin and Sgt J Beattie and are buried in Uden war Cemetery. Sgt W. W. Hall was interned in Camps 9C/L3/L6/357, POW No.39213 and in 1989 wrote a short account of his war time period including that as a POW, entitled a “Flyer’s Tale”. Sgt D. H. Harley in Camps 3E/L3/L6/357, POW No.5.
On 17th June 1941 the port airscrew of Blenheim Z5803 came off whilst in flight. The pilot, Sgt. Dunham, made a successful landing. Excessive oil consumption was the cause of the accident.
Pilots billet at 13 OTU, Bicester, Oxford
No.32 Course of 13 OTU comprising 18 Pilots, 18 Observers and 16 Air Gunners, were posted to Operational Squadrons on 17th June 1941 noting 8 No. ‘Wastage’ from the original course numbers, including 2 crews of 3 killed and 2 Air Gunners who did not make it for one reason or another. The word wastage is used regularly in the records recording pupils or aircrew that did not make it through training or indeed died.
Sgt. Fenton, Sgt. Fuller and Sgt. McDonald were posted to 139 (Jamaica) Squadron, Horsham St. Faith on 17th June 1941.
Only a few days later, two further aircraft were lost Blenheim’s L9238 and L9035. Blenhein IV L9238 was lost on 20th June 1941 when the port engine cut whilst flying over the Irish Sea and the aircraft was forced to ditch. The dinghy was successfully deployed and the crew were picked up by the trawler SS Sard. Sgt’s T W Caston, J C Fisher and A Leigh were all injured but went on to serve. The second aircraft, Blenheim IV L9035 on 21st June 1941 was on a cross country exercise when the propeller was shed from the port engine and the aircraft was forced to land near Wrexham, Denbigh Sgt Charles Richardson Digges and his crew were injured but not seriously. Digges went on to fly with 139 Squadron, winning a DFC, but was killed on 18th December 1941.
Three Sergeants, Sgts L M Taylor, L C Botterman and W H K Annetts, were to lose their life on 23rd June 1941when their aircraft was seen to dive into the ground, believed to have occurred following engine failure, whilst carrying out local flying exercises out of Bicester.
Blenheim IV’s of 13 OTU.
Members of a Royal Air Force school of Practical Training marching past some of their machines.