by John Johnson(Author of Air Britain book - 149 Squadron. This is the Methwold chapter printed with permission)
Methwold was a wartime airfield, buried in the middle of sugar beet countryside, temporary, thrown together in a hurry, and dispersed. The technical site lay alongside the airfield but all of the related buildings were hidden under a long line of trees bordering it. The other buildings of the airfield were scattered all over, the headquarters, medical and dental facilities, clothing, sergeants and officers quarters, being located on the other side of the road which ran into Methwold village.
The four hangars were likewise scattered around the field, while the cookhouse, NAAFI, education offices, airmen’s and WAAF’s quarters were scattered in Nissen huts, stretched out alongside the very narrow road which ran towards the road to Feltwell. After the usual booking-in rites, while sleeping for the first couple of nights in a small shed, I was assigned a bed in a Nissen hut about a mile from the radar section, the workshop being the second last building to the right of the technical site.
Methwold was one of the first dispersed airfields built just before WW II, initially as a satellite for neighbouring Feltwell, becoming the dispersal home in succession for 37, 214, 75 and 57 squadron Wellingtons. Then the field was turned over to 2 Group and Venturas, first 21 squadron in October ‘42 then the short stay of the Australians and New Zealanders of 464 and 487 squadrons from April to July, ‘43. During this time Methwold was able to boast one Victoria Cross, awarded to Squadron Leader Len Trent of 487 Royal New Zealand Air Force Squadron, who led a formation of twelve twin engined Venturas on a raid on the Amsterdam power station on May the 3rd, 1943, only one of the Venturas returning from the raid, he being shot down and taken prisoner of war.
Preparation for the invasion of Europe meant stockpiling gliders, and so for a while Methwold was the home of 32 Horsas until removed in March of ‘44, these same gliders being used at Arnhem. After their departure the next to arrive in May 1944 was 149 with their Stirling III’s followed by 218 squadron’s Lancasters, 149 later converting to Lancasters.
149 squadron was one of only two squadrons that had served solely with Bomber Command from the beginning to the end of World War II, entering the war first flying Wellingtons from Mildenhall, being in the air the very first day that war was declared. Then Stirlings from Lakenheath, being the last squadron to fly Stirlings in bomber operations. After moving to Methwold earlier in 1944, they had converted to Lancasters beginning in August, using both Mark I with British Rolls Royce engines, and Mark III with Packard Merlins. The squadron code for A and B flights, ten Lancasters per flight, was OJ, then it was upgraded to a three flight squadron in November, C Flight carrying the code TK. That meant thirty Lancasters, plus spares, and a need for more ground crew, which explained why I had been posted there. Typical of Lancaster bomb loads, the bomb load for 149 was usually one 4,000lb bomb, the rest of the load being made up with 1,000 and 500 pounders, and sometimes crates of incendiaries. Most of C Flight had extended bomb bay Lancasters, which meant that these aircraft could and did carry 8,000 pounders. The extended bomb bay of these Lancasters no longer allowed the installation of the H2S cupola, but some carried a downward firing 0.5 machine gun in its place. While I was at Driffield, I always felt that the Halifaxes were being short-changed in that they were the ones who seemed to be relegated to carrying the bulk of the incendiaries, while the Lancasters were carrying the ‘big’ bombs. It was only long after the war that I learned that pound for pound, the incendiaries were inflicting much greater damage, resulting in the devastating firestorms of Hamburg, Dresden and elsewhere.
Still an ‘erk’, I had now risen to the dizzy height of aircraftsman, first class. My leading aircraftsman propeller was yet to come. But I was still one rank ahead of Thomas Durosimi Sigismund Johnson, another newcomer to Methwold. Tom was from Sierra Leone, and by tradition he carried both his father’s and his mother’s first names. Tom’s skin was black, but not as black as the ebony of the radar mechanic from Nigeria who arrived much after us.
Radar on board was as for Driffield, with Gee, IFF, Rebecca and H2S, but 149 aircraft, in common with other squadrons in 3 Group, usually carried G-H in place of Gee. G-H was an adaptation of Gee, now being a five unit piece of equipment, and instead of using a ground station as the A or master station, the primary transmitter travelled inside the aircraft, and up to 400 aircraft could use the same B and C slave stations. This not only gave greater range, but also greater accuracy. So much so, that it was possible to blind bomb on pre-determined co-ordinates to an accuracy of about one hundred yards, the read-outs being as for Gee, but with a different style of map, using circles in place of the Gee hyperbolae. In order to identify a G-H carrying Lancaster, two horizontal yellow bars were painted on the outside of each fin and rudder. On daylight raids, this allowed other aircraft to formate on them, and then drop their bombs in unison. With this equipment, 3 Group no longer needed to rely on the Pathfinders of 8 Group and the Oboe carrying Mosquitoes of 105 and 109 squadrons to mark their targets, and so 3 Group quite often operated as an independent group within Bomber Command.
When I arrived at Methwold, there was still one flight of Lancasters from 218 squadron there, 218 earlier sharing the field at Methwold with 149, their flight being dispersed around the perimeter track close to, and to the right of the radar section. Soon they’d be moved to their new base at Chedburgh. Meanwhile, because of the very bad weather, several of 149’s Lancasters with all of the necessary maintenance personnel, including radar mechanics, had been temporarily transferred to Woodbridge as an Advanced Striking Force, insuring that at least some of our Lancasters could be put into the air as called for by Bomber Command Headquarters. Other than the usual bombing up of aircraft, the first visual indication to me that 149 squadron was also ‘in the war’ happened on the 2nd of January, 1945, when OJ-S, serial NG 362, one of fifteen aircraft returning from a raid on Nuremburg, overshot the runway, crashed, caught fire, and burned, two of the crew being injured.
No longer the brick accommodations of Driffield, living was now ‘different’, and like all of those ground crew stationed on a dispersed airfield, I would now be roughing it. But I still had, as at Driffield, the second bed to the left as I entered the Nissen hut. My companion to my right, having the first bed, was another radar mechanic, he also having just moved in, by name of Ken Rough, a Canadian, and he and I formed a firm friendship that has stayed with us all of our lives. Ken had been trained in ASV Mk II, for ship and submarine detection, but instead of being posted to a Coastal Command unit, he had been sent first to Harwell, where they were ferrying Wellingtons to the Middle East. Then on to Lossiemouth in the north of Scotland for 3 years, assigned to 20 OTU, a Bomber Command Operational Training Unit and again Wellingtons, where he maintained their Gee equipment. Ken was becoming concerned that the war would be over, and he would never have been anywhere near the action. Although, listening to his tales of aircraft crashes on the OTU’s, their casualty rate was much higher than any bomber squadron. The casualty figures of training units, or for that matter any aircraft which crashed in Britain, even after returning from Operations over Europe, were never reported to the press, so we never heard of the appalling casualties of the training units using war weary aircraft.
When 6 Group, an all Canadian Bomber Group was formed, with mixed Lancaster and Halifax squadrons, the word went out that any Canadian could apply for a transfer. Ken saw this as his chance to at last get into the action, so he applied, and eventually got his transfer.. With so many Canadian radar mechanics now serving in Bomber Command, I’m sure that every Canadian squadron radar section in 6 Group could have been fully manned by Canadians several times over, and so there just wasn’t a place for them all. And so while Ken got his transfer, it wasn’t to 6 Group, it was to 149 squadron. But Ken was still very happy that at last, he was ‘in the war’! As for the other Canadians, he naturally was a shadow sergeant in the RCAF, but carried an RAF LAC propeller on his sleeve. I have always admired Ken and his stance to the war in Europe. Early in the war he sold all that he had, and volunteered to go to Britain and join in the fighting, truly believing that he might not be coming back.
The rest of the occupants in the Nissen hut were a mixed bunch of trades, including both bomb and gun armourers. Christmas was close, and Edgar Jennings, one of the armourers, had just received a Christmas package of nuts from his aunt, together with a loan of her nut-crackers. This armourer always seemed so incongruous to me in that he was obviously well educated, his accent implying that he was from a well to do family. Yet he was an LAC armourer, and had been in the RAF quite a while. I could never understand why he hadn’t gone further in either trade or rank as he certainly had the mental make-up. With the camaraderie that existed between us, he passed the nuts around, to share. When it came to my turn, I must have picked a particularly hard nut. Sufficient to say that I broke his aunt’s nut crackers. I can still remember his mock horror, when he called out "Oh, my goodness! What will ar-ntie say!"
There was another Canadian radar mechanic whose bed was opposite to Ken’s, but he didn’t have the generosity of our armourer friend. He’d receive food parcels from home, and his food hoard was kept locked up in a dark blue canvas carry-all. He didn’t believe in sharing, not even with Ken his fellow Canadian. It was the first time that I’d ever seen anyone eat jam on Spam. Once he locked his bag with his padlock as usual, then found that he’d locked his key inside. I opened it surprisingly quickly with a piece of bent wire, which left him with a great sense of insecurity after that. The RAF airmen’s trousers had buttoned fly’s, while the Canadians had zippers, which we envied, until one day our food hoarder cried out for help from the ablutions. He had caught himself in his zipper and could neither zip it up nor down without inflicting great pain to himself. No-one could do anything for a while for laughing, which prolonged the punishment, until eventually someone resolved the situation with a pair of scissors.
A pot bellied stove sat in the middle of the Nissen hut, with a supply of coke for fuel. Coal was too valuable a commodity to be given to mere airmen. We each took turns to clean out the stove and sweep the Nissen hut floor. Making the fire meant finding some newspaper and wood to get things started, and they weren’t easy to come by so we’d need to forage. One day one of the other ‘trades’ decided to give the fire lighting job a boost. After adding the paper, wood, and coke in order, he poured a little gasoline onto the coke. Then he went looking for a match. Meanwhile the gasoline was turning to vapour. When he put a match to the paper via the small door at the bottom of the stove, there was a bang, the lid of the stove shot up into the air, the ball of paper, untouched by flame, shot out through the door at the bottom of the stove and made it to the Nissen hut front door, and the fire was burning merrily!
The radar section at Methwold, buried in the trees, was a rectangular hut, painted green, with sides of asbestos composition board. The inside layout was nevertheless the same as Driffield. On entry, immediately to the left was the storeroom and beyond that the office of the officer in charge of the radar section. At the far end of the hut on the wall was stuck an American poster warning of the dangers of very high voltage, with the caption "Remember, you’re a long time dead". Gee, G-H and Rebecca equipment lay along the right hand bench stretching along the entry door wall, while H2S equipment was located on the far bench, with the usual spares, tool bags, test equipment, and so on tucked under the benches. A tall grey cabinet stood on the floor between, and this was where the spare tubes, or valves were stored. Still a flight line mechanic, I was given a tool kit and assigned to B Flight, which straddled either side of the perimeter track, close to and behind the technical site. Our radar officer was Flying Officer Sam Fox, a Canadian, with another Canadian, Warrant Officer Neil Morgan next in rank. Neil very soon left in January, he being transferred to headquarters, 3 Group, leaving as our senior NCO’s sergeants ‘Ollie’ Oliver, another Canadian, and Ron Joseph, this time, RAF. Ron was a whiz at H2S, so much so that he wrote the servicing manuals for the Group. We had at least a half dozen other Canadians, two of whom were corporals. When I arrived, two other airmen had been transferred out, but these were Americans who had been serving with the RAF. They had now opted to transfer to the Eighth Air Force. When they left they had departed as LAC’s. When they came back to see us, they looked like Christmas trees in their American Air Force uniforms, with stripes up and down their arms identifying them as technical sergeants, with service stripes, medals and other trimmings. The American bombers of the Eighth Air Force were also carrying British Gee, and some aircraft carried British G-H and H2S as well as their own version of H2S known as H2X, or ‘Mickey’ from Mickey Mouse. The prolonged wartime experience of these two airmen must have been invaluable.
I was issued my bike, and with my billet being so far from the radar section I needed it much more for getting to and from my billet than I did attending to the aircraft. Ball bearings were at a premium, and the bicycle section had none to give me to replace those missing from my front wheel, which had fewer than it needed, and those it did have had stopped being round a very long time ago. Twice while I was cycling at Methwold, that collection of tiny pieces of metal would form an interlocked block, immediately freezing the front wheel solid and sending me over the handlebars. The first time was when I was passing the guard house which lay between the cookhouse and the technical site. Or at least I was trying to pass. The ball bearings put an end to that idea. The other time will be explained later.
Methwold had what must have been the finest airman’s mess-hall in the RAF. The flight sergeant in charge was by name of ‘Chiefy’ Dines, an ex-butcher, a local fellow from St. Ives not too far away. With a twin mess hall, he laid on two different choices of meal in one mess hall, and a further two in the other at every dinner time. You could cut through from one mess hall to the other at the serving counters and make your choice. There was never any need to stand in line, as we were served immediately. Further, you could have as much as you wanted. However, you had better take only that which you could eat, as he’d be standing there at the garbage bins, making sure that nothing went in there from your plate, or you might wind up that night in the cookhouse, cleaning greasy pans.
Now that I was with a G-H squadron, I needed to learn G-H, and so I was sent over to 3 Group’s radar school at Feltwell, to spend a week learning the intricacies of this new equipment. Attending the class were mechanics from various other squadrons, who were temporarily billeted at Feltwell. But Feltwell was ‘just around the corner’ from Methwold, and my billet was on the way, so I’d cycle back and forth to Feltwell each day. Also at Feltwell was Bomber Command’s Bomber Development Unit, one of the major functions of this unit being radar development, and I was to join this unit when it was upgraded only a year later. Surprisingly for me, I wound up with top marks in the G-H class, which may well have been the reason for my being chosen to join BDU later, but sufficient to say, the Methwold Signals Officer thought that I had brought honour to the Signals section of the squadron, and so I was called over to his office one morning, to be personally congratulated.
I never enjoyed wearing a hat, and it has been that way all of my life. I remember at eleven years old, after my first day at Rutherford College Boys School, taking my college cap, a black cap with red stripes and the official school badge, and throwing it into the back of the closet, and there it stayed. Working out on a flight line and being used to continually clambering through aircraft is one good excuse why I never wore a hat on squadron service. By this time, I’d managed to talk the clothing store out of a battle-dress to replace my second ‘working’ tunic uniform, (flight line crew, you know!) and even trading my working boots for a pair of dress shoes, normally reserved for air crew, and so I was ‘comfortable’, my hat perpetually residing in my battle-dress epaulette.
Hatless, I was ushered into the Senior Signals Officer’s office in the Technical Administration building, a long rectangular building which faced the airfield. He meanwhile was somewhere else, so there I stood for a while in his empty office, possibly pondering on ‘Milton, on his Blindness’, as these things do seem to come to me, to fit the occasion. Then he came marching in, and as he walked around to the rear of his desk, he congratulated me on my high score, while simultaneously giving me a swift verbal kick in the rear end for not having my hat on in his office.
The Eighth Air Force airfields were all around us, and it was common to see their Flying Fortresses pass very low overhead during the day, either heading out, or returning from one of their daylight raids. Sometimes you’d see a dead engine, or a trail of smoke, and sometimes you’d see them popping Very flares from the aircraft, giving advance notice to those on the ground of some condition on board, sometimes a red and a green, sometimes a red, sometimes two reds. I never knew what each meant, but there was an ominous message in each one.
My father still sent me my ‘Aeroplane Spotter’ magazines in the mail, and the various kinds of planes which passed overhead became a continuous aircraft recognition challenge. I never lost any of my Air Training Corps spotting skills, and I’d challenge Ken Rough to see if he could identify each. Many years later Ken commented on this, in that, when he’d come up with the right answer, I’d always follow with "Of course! But which Mark?"
Flight line duty at Methwold followed the same routine as Driffield, with my taking turns as Duty Mechanic, and sharing the flight with another mechanic, he often being Bernie Auerbach from Toronto, recently earning his corporal’s stripes, who looked after the H2S while I took care of Gee or G-H and Rebecca. The navigator’s table in the Lancaster lay on the port side behind the pilot, and compared to the Halifax, the navigator had lots more room. The flight engineer sat on a fold down seat next to the pilot on the navigator’s right, and the wireless operator sat to the navigator’s left, tucked between his table and the wing main spar. Again the navigator’s seat was a fold down seat, but this was more of a bench with room for two at a squeeze, the idea being that the bomb aimer could come up and take a turn at operating the H2S equipment. So now it was possible for both Bernie and me to be servicing the same Lancaster simultaneously. This could come in handy sometimes, in that Bernie occasionally needed to adjust something on one of the units down in the body of the fuselage while I operated the set and yelled down what changes I could see on the H2S indicator.
When a unit needed to be replaced, there were times when it was a long wait until the radar van and a driver could be freed to make the trip. On one occasion I had called in and was idly passing the time standing by the pilot’s seat, and looking out of the canopy window which can be slid back there, seeing what was going on around. The bomb carriers had been brought up for loading this particular aircraft, with the 4,000lb bomb sitting on it’s special trailer. One of the airmen on the ground was idly tapping the bomb with his foot. One of the bomb armourers, on seeing this called out to him. "Don’t do that! If that bomb goes off, it’ll blow your foot off!"
The ‘Window’ store room at Methwold was close by the radar section, and was under the supervision and control of the radar section. Luckily for us, it wasn’t inspected for military neatness. You had to kick your way through the ankle deep strips that covered the floor, from packets that had burst open. Window was either aluminium, or aluminium laminated paper strips, the principle being that if the aluminium strip was cut to length equal to the wavelength or a harmonic of that of a transmitter, then the echo would be much more intense. Drop thousands of such strips, and the ground transmitter receiver would be saturated in returns, any of our aircraft in the area being ‘lost’ in the multiple spurious echoes which would flood the receiver screen.
We were using it in two standard sizes. One was designed to jam the ground stations, known as Wurzburg, very narrow, around 0.2 inches wide, and ten inches long, in bundles of hundreds, held together with a wrap of brown wrapping paper. The other was to jam the German equivalent of our A.I. carried by their fighters, known as FuG220, or Lichtenstein SN-2, and this was a paper laminate, around 0.8 inches by five feet long, folded into about 10inch lengths, again with a brown paper wrapping holding a number of them, maybe 80 or so, together. The wrapping paper was rather weak, and the gummed tape was moisture sensitive, and so they easily burst open. Rough handling didn’t help much either.
As to rough handling, on one of my daily inspections, this being an aircraft that I’d missed after it had returned from operations earlier, when I came to check the Gee, the receiver was missing! Not only that, the leads leading to the receiver had been ‘decapitated’ and all that was there now were the ragged ends of the braided cable. A little inquiry explained what had happened. As the aircraft was returning from France and crossing the Channel, smoke started to pour from the receiver. This was most likely no more than an electrical short in the power pack at the back of the receiver, and this would cause the wax used on the components to melt, then smoke. But it would never have gotten worse than this.
However the navigator wasn’t taking any chances. Nor was he going to waste time undoing the plugs, which takes seconds. He had taken the fire axe and chopped through the cables. As the receiver sits under the navigator’s table, it must have been a harder job to chop the cables, than to undo the plugs. Then he had taken the receiver out of its cradle, and dropped it through the escape hatch up in the front of the nose, into the English Channel. Good-bye receiver! And I wound up having to replace and re-string the damaged leads.
As all of the physical work is handled by the radar mechanics, and most of the administrative work by the senior N.C.O.s, that leaves little for any radar officer to do. And so our radar officer, Sam Fox, would get very bored. So bored that there were even occasions when he would take a can of carbon tetrachloride, which looked for all the world like a can of corned beef, rectangular, but with tapered sides, and blue in colour, and a rag, and come out on the flight line with us, then clean the inside of the H2S cupolas for us. As well as hydraulic oil that could drip there from the mid-upper turret, there could be empty .303 cases that somehow wound up from the mid-upper gun position. Sam was a tinsmith in civilian life, and sheets of aluminium were readily available from the Maintenance Unit at the nearby hanger, from which we could make chassis’ of one kind or another, sometimes for some electronic gadget, sometimes for a home made radio. There was always somebody in every radar section who would be winding his own coils to make radios and so would end up with the nick-name ‘coil-winder’. Sam was soon to be married, so he got to work, making a ‘surprise’ for his would-be bride, a set of home made pots and pans.
As each pot was completed, it was carefully placed in the bottom of the valve cupboard, which was always kept locked. Surprise inspections were rare, but they happened. This particular morning, in walked the Base Commander, Group Captain Yarde, with yellow laurel leaves, or ‘scrambled egg’ around the peak of his cap to be followed by a crocodile of the station’s administrative officers in descending order of rank, ending with the Station Warrant Officer. The warrant officer was there to write down any names for punishment, as needed, and to see that it was carried out. The Base Commander lived with his wife in an impressive isolated house just off the boundary of the airfield. The radar section wasn’t too bad when it came to appearance. However, when he came to the valve cupboard, he rattled the handle, and finding it locked, called out ‘What’s in here?" "Spare valves, sir!" replied Sam. "Open it!" With great trepidation, Sam opened the cupboard. The scrambled egg leaned back and scanned the cupboard from top to bottom, his eyes finally falling on Sam’s pans. "Who’s are these!" he barked out. With a stroke of genius, Sam blurted out "Yours, sir!" The pans were passed down the crocodile, a quick "Thank you!", and the inspection immediately ended, the crocodile and ill gotten pans vanishing through the door. Sam never did risk his career a second time. Many years later, I met Sam’s widow in Toronto at an Air Force reunion, Sam having recently died, and told her the story of the pots and pans that she never received. It was a tale never told to her by Sam, giving her a smile, and adding to her memories.
Time off at Methwold was naturally the same as Driffield, half a day a week, or you could save it and have a whole day every two weeks. The nearest communities bigger than the very small villages of Methwold and Feltwell were Brandon and Thetford, both about a five mile walk or bike ride away, Thetford also being the location of the nearest railway station. A trip to both places at the first available opportunity proved that there was nothing there of any interest either, and the next place worth heading to was Cambridge, a train ride away. I’ve always been a teetotaller, and so the bars, the favourite collecting places for service personnel never called to me. Again, nothing startling in Cambridge, and having seen it once, the second trip was rather boring, but at least it was off the base for a short while.
Then I found out that it was possible to use the rifle range on my half day off. With so many aircraft on the base, the total number of Browning machine guns carried by our aircraft was phenomenal, and each gun was checked before a mission, by cocking it once or twice. This resulted in the discharge of two or three live rounds from the machine gun, and the armourers would collect these and load them randomly into ammunition boxes. They weren’t allowed to use those rounds in an ammunition belt again, for fear that they could cause a jam. The bullet part of ball rounds were their plain copper colour, but the tips of the other bullets were colour coded, blue, red and green, for armour piercing, incendiary and tracer, machine gun belts being made up in sequences, one of each in turn. Which colour meant what I neither knew nor cared. They all worked in a Lee Enfield rifle.
On my half day off, I would sign out both a rifle and the key to the rifle range, then load up ammunition clips with these ‘free’ rounds, until I had enough to fill two white cloth bandoleers, loaned to me courtesy of the armoury. Then with the two crossed bandoleers across my chest, like Pancho Villa, and the rifle slung across my back, I’d cycle up to the rifle range, which lay just beyond the hangar a quarter of the way around the perimeter track, anti-clockwise from the radar section. At first it was formal shooting at targets. Then, as my aim improved, the targets got smaller and smaller until it was a half-penny. Then I’d try swinging something and see if I could hit it, staying at the range until I’d used up all of the ammunition. Often it was a case of how many rounds I could fire with reasonable accuracy from a bolt operated rifle in one minute. If I remember rightly, I believe it was around fifteen including reloading. Of all of the times I went to the rifle range, I never saw anyone else there.
Somewhere around early April, a notice appeared on the radar section notice board. It had been decided that everyone in Signals had to take a marksmanship test, possibly to see whether we were still capable of hitting something, and hadn’t forgotten what we were taught when we first joined the RAF. Or perhaps things were getting so desperate for the Germans that they were preparing for the possibility of suicide attacks on our airfield by German parachute troops, and we’d better be capable of defending ourselves. Whatever the reason, when it was all over, the scores were announced. I was top marksman in Signals…..little wonder!
While there were no parachute troop attacks, the Germans did retaliate by attacking our airfields, or at least the aircraft returning to the airfields. German twin engined fighters, most probably Messerschmitt Me 410’s, would follow both our bomber stream and the bombers of the 8th Air Force, returning to England. Then, as one of the bombers was landing at slow speed, with hydraulics operating the flaps, the turrets then being out of action, the German night intruders would come in on a beam attack. On March 3rd, two Halifaxes of my old squadron, 466, were shot down this way, as they came in to land following a raid on Kamen. They tried that only once in our specific area, and that was at a neighbouring bomber airfield. Immediately after that, when our aircraft were due to return, I could hear the drone of a Mosquito fighter circling our field, just waiting for the chance. But the Luftwaffe had more sense and never returned.
Another notice appeared on the board at about the same time. The war with Germany was obviously coming to a rapid satisfactory conclusion, but the war with Japan still raged. The Indian Army was crying out for officers, and this notice stated that all radar mechanics had the necessary educational background to become officers in the Indian army. We were being given the opportunity for a commission in the army. Sixteen weeks at Officer Training School, and it was a second lieutenant’s pip. Eleven more weeks at Battle Training School, and it was a second pip to First Lieutenant, and the troopship to the Far East. It sounded too good to be true.
If it sounds too good to be true, it usually is. I thought of the jungle warfare being fought in Burma, where the Indian army was at that time, of the dark skins, turbans and beards, and this white bespectacled face among them. Now, if I were a Japanese infantryman, who would make the best target? Who would I shoot at first? Where else could I do more damage to the enemy other than killing one of their officers? I now had an idea why they needed more officers in the Indian Army, and didn’t think that getting a commission was such a good idea after all. Better to be a live erk than a dead lieutenant. Had I transferred, by the time I would have departed for the Far East, the war with Japan would have been over. But no-one can foretell the future. So I remained a humble member of the Royal Air Force.
The longest time span that I ever worked continually on a single aircraft to bring it back to full operating condition was around thirty six hours, working on 'Heavenly Hilda', OJ-H, in that I was also duty mechanic at that time. It seemed that everything was wrong. Even the H2S scanner turned in the wrong direction, rotating backwards. This was eventually traced to a junction box near the flight engineer’s panel, where an electrician had inadvertently reversed two of the wires of a three-phase system. When I eventually ‘signed off’ I returned to the Nissen hut, not having had any sleep. The beds were built in two halves, to slide together and so take up less floor space during the day-time. My three ‘biscuits’ which make up the mattress, folded blankets and paliasse were stacked on top. I sat on the frame, leaned back on the stack, and fell asleep. My hat was still lying just inside the door of OJ-H were I’d placed it, as I’d forgotten to retrieve it. That day, twenty aircraft of the squadron left for a G-H raid on the oil refinery at Gelsenkirchen. It was the 5th of March, 1945. OJ-H, NF 972 never returned, being seen to go down in the Wesel area, following a fire and explosions on board, probably due to the accurate anti-aircraft fire encountered on the raid. The two Australian crewmen on board were killed.
Rear gunners, being isolated from the other crew, were a breed apart. The rear turret is partially open to give clear visibility, but that also makes it very cold at high altitudes. And so the rear gunners would persuade their armourers to build a fold down acrylic ‘perspex’ panel hinged arrangement, which would enable them to enclose the turret for some of the journey. There was one rear gunner at Methwold who was carrying out his own private war. On each trip he’d bring along anything that he could throw out of the back of the turret while bombs were being dropped from the front of the aircraft, and preferably something that would make a noise as it went down, bottles and drain-pipes heading the list. On one raid I saw him take a large lever, the kind used on the railways to switch points. I often wondered what the Germans thought was going on, and what part of a secret weapon this was, whoever received his donation through their roof.
One can imagine the emotional stress that each and every member of a bomber crew felt, knowing that each raid that he went on could be his last day on earth. Bomber crews were notoriously superstitious and many carried lucky charms of one sort or another with them, often something connected with their wife, girl friend, children, or family. After completing my inspection of the returning aircraft, I’d occasionally hitch a ride back to the Technical Site in a crew bus, the interrogation room being not far from the radar section. On one such ride back, the rear gunner of the crew had just completed his last mission. He sat in the back of the crew bus, with his arms wrapped around a teddy bear, no doubt his child’s, with tears of relief just pouring down his cheeks, obviously totally unable to speak.
Also part of their superstition, the crews had a great aversion to flying in a Lancaster in which a crew member had been killed. When this happened, the Lancaster damage was repaired in the maintenance hangar near the radar section, then the aircraft was transferred to another squadron, as just another anonymous replacement. We had two such aircraft that I can remember at Methwold.
One was Lancaster OJ-O, NF 976 which returned from a night raid on the railway marshalling yards at Hohenbudberg, with an injured rear gunner who died shortly afterwards. They had been attacked by a Messerschmitt Me 109 which the mid-upper gunner claimed that he had shot down. It was believed that the interrupter gear, known as ‘taboo tracks’ on the mid-upper turret which controls where and when the guns cannot fire, had failed. This resulted in the mid-upper gunner shooting into the rear fuselage of his own aircraft, putting bullets into the back of his own rear gunner. That aircraft sat around for a while pending full inspection and report, then it was repaired and shipped out.
The other was Lancaster OJ-J, NG 224, following a G-H raid on the benzol plant at Gelsenkirchen. In this raid, there was heavy flak, and 11 of our aircraft were hit, the bomb aimer of J being killed, he being hit in the face by a piece of shrapnel. I was working on this particular flight line at the time, and went to service this aircraft which was at its dispersal point. As yet I hadn’t heard of the tragedy. I saw the smashed bomb-aimer’s panel, and then I was asked by the sergeant on the flight line to hold my inspection for a while. The aircraft fitters were stripping out the light green vinyl covered sponge pads on which the bomb aimer laid, which were soaked in blood, and whatever else that they could take out of the nose that was blood splattered, and these were buried in a pit alongside the dispersal. The aircraft then went off to the maintenance hangar, to be repaired and transferred. Forty years later, I returned to Methwold, and where the flight line lay was now a long thin hut which was where pig research was being carried out. The dispersal under question would have been somewhere near the end of the hut. By the long arm of coincidence, a lady working in the room at the end of the research building swears that she has seen an airman, not once, but two or three times, passing through the room. She was totally unaware of the existence of a flight line of Lancasters sitting in the same location as she now worked, or of the dead airman.
149 Squadron had a history as an innovative squadron. In the First World War, with FE2b’s as night bombers, 149 had developed a system to mask the engine exhaust flares, a give-away of your position in the dark, and this had been incorporated into aircraft of other squadrons. In World War II, 149, together with 9 Squadron, dropped the first two 4,000lb bombs, from Wellington Mark II’s. These were not the ‘garbage can’ type, so familiar later in the war, but were dropped by parachute, much like sea mines. One of the roles assigned to 149 earlier in the war was mine-laying in the European harbour and river entry-ways. Earlier this was carried out at low altitude making the mine-laying aircraft very vulnerable to enemy fire, particularly from flak-ships. By precise navigation, 149 was able to develop a high altitude mine laying technique, reducing the consequences of enemy retaliation, the technique being adopted as standard procedure by Bomber Command.
It may have been this ability at precision navigation that resulted in 149 being chosen as one of those Bomber Command squadrons to drop supplies from time to time to the Resistance movement in Europe, who fought the continual secret war against the Germans on the European mainland. These drops were known as S.O.E. operations, or ‘Secret Operations Executive’. 138 and 161 Squadrons were specifically assigned this duty, but for some reason, every now and then, the task was handed to a bomber squadron. To this end, 149 could boast many such drops.
On two occasions I saw two Lancasters being prepared for this role. The containers being loaded on board were octagonal, and a browny-orange colour. Each container carried its own individual number, and also the total number of containers within that load, so that the Resistance fighters would know exactly how many containers to look for in the dark. The method of drop was usually by flying to a Eureka beacon that would be set up by one of the Resistance, sometimes as an ingenious transmitter-receiver strapped to the chest, which was triggered by the Rebecca radar set on board the Lancaster. It wasn’t until much later that I learned of my small part in all of this, in ensuring that each aircraft had a fully functioning and reliable Rebecca set. Bombs would occasionally hang up, and I can remember the concern the bomb armourers had that no hang-ups would happen on these trips, or some poor soul would be risking his or her life looking for a container that didn’t exist.
The last preparation for a drop that I saw was late in the war, probably late February or early March, 1945, and so although I never knew where our aircraft were going, one can assume that it was probably Norway or Denmark, still occupied by German troops, as most of non-German Europe was now free. Again, I was out on the flight line close to the time that the two planes should make it back. Shortly before the aircraft returned, an army officer rode in on a motor bike, parked it near the dispersal, and immediately began conversing with one of our officers waiting with us for the aircraft’s return. He seemed to have no qualms in telling us that the drop had been in the wrong location, no doubt on a dummy one set up by the Germans, and the supplies were already in German hands. This we knew, before our two aircraft had returned to Methwold. At least our radio communication with the Resistance was very good.
Joy rides were still a way of life whenever I had the opportunity, only life on the flight line at Methwold was a little different from Driffield. No more overalls, or leather jackets necessary to me keep warm, and on this particular day it was so warm that I was out on the flight line in my rolled up shirt sleeves, my battle-dress top being back in the radar section. A crew came out to one of the Lancasters and the engines opened up one by one with their usual roar. A chance to fly! So I quickly asked the pilot’s permission and got it, but I’d better hurry, and I’d need to grab a parachute. So off I went, flying along on my bike through the trees hiding the technical site, up and down over the ridges and tree roots of the pathways leading to the parachute section. I quickly signed out a parachute, harness, helmet and oxygen mask, then back again, dumping my bike in the grass near the dispersal, then climbed on board, just before the aircraft taxied out, and took my usual seat on the step by the main spar, next to the wireless operator, connecting up to the intercom.
It was to be a three hour cross country, and oxygen. And that’s when I found out how cold it gets above 15,000 feet when you’re in your shirt sleeves and no jacket. For almost three hours I found out. But it was a beautiful sunny day, and it was essentially a cloudless sky with a very clear sharp view of the ground below. It is then that I could see just how many airfields, both RAF and 8th Air Force, existed in East Anglia. It was a veritable huge aircraft carrier, several airfields being visible at any one time.
The time came when we landed back at Methwold, and it was back to work for me, with me wondering if anyone had missed me, and whether my bike was still there. Now I needed to hand in the flying equipment. I cycled back through the trees on my bike, with the parachute and harness slung on my back being held there with one hand, and the other hand both holding onto the bike handlebars and the helmet and mask. And that’s when the ball bearings did it again, and the front wheel locked solid. I went over the handlebars, thinking…’If I do anything clever here, this parachute is going to open’. So I stayed in that position, landing on my arm, shoulder and face, the parachute sitting on my back, and I eventually skidded to a halt at the base of a very solid tree. Newton’s First Law of Motion was confirmed. A moving body does indeed continue travelling in a straight line until acted upon by another force. My face and arm were skinned and dirty, my side was bruised, but the parachute didn’t open. When I picked my bike up, the front wheel turned normally as if nothing ever happened. But it was worth it. It was always worth it. Sitting on the step by the main spar, the noise of the engines, the vibration, the hardly distinguishable voices over the intercom….and the cold. That was flying!
There were two or three hair raising adventures at Methwold, one to the bomb dump, one to another radar mech., the other to myself. Not too long after I arrived at Methwold, something happened to one of the bombs in the bomb dump, in that it was ‘live’ and had to be defused. Two armourers worked on the bomb for two days, eventually rendering it safe. Meanwhile an area was marked off and it was necessary to detour around the neighbouring area of the perimeter track if you wanted to go to the other side of the airfield. Later it was announced that the two airmen in question had been awarded a ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ for their achievement.
H2S operates from very high voltage. In order to check out a set, it is arranged on the work bench fully connected and running, but with the outer cases of each unit removed so that you could get to the innards for testing. Only in this way can you check the various voltages with an Avometer and wave-forms with an oscilloscope. A good practice was to put one hand in your pocket and in that way you couldn’t ground yourself on a piece of the equipment, while poking at some high voltage with the other hand. On this particular occasion, a radar mechanic was checking the innards of an H2S set. In the next moment he was flung across the room and his hand disappeared somewhere up under his armpit. He had hit a 10,000 volt contact. Luckily the resultant current caused the voltage to drop very rapidly, and all he got was a very nasty shock, both electrical and personal. But he could just as easily have been killed. All radar mechanics would receive shocks of one kind or another during their working career, and after a while it seemed that, although we never got used to them, we built up a slight immunity.
The next hair raising experience, and this time it was my own hair, occurred out on the flight line. I was under a Lancaster that was being bombed up. The last bomb had been taken from the trolley and had been almost completely winched up into the bomb bay, the trolley having been taken away. I was walking under the Lancaster towards the Jennie, when either the winch cable broke or the bomb clip disconnected, and the bomb dropped just behind me. Another foot or two and I would have been ‘brained’….or de-brained. The safety pin was secure and all that happened was a bent fin. Only shortly before this we had heard of a Lancaster, PD325 of 514 squadron at Waterbeach that had gone up, due to the premature explosion of one of the bombs. We learned that two radar mechanics had been seen pushing their generator away from the aircraft just before the incident. They just ‘disappeared’, no trace of them or the Jennie ever being found.
By April the end of the war was very much in sight, and further bombing would achieve little. So the role of Bomber Command was expanded to that of bringing back ex prisoners of war to Britain, known as ‘Operation Exodus’, Methwold being selected as one returning soldiers from the Indian army who had been taken prisoner in North Africa. The first such squadron duty took place on the 5th of April, and these pick-ups continued until after the end of the war. April the 22nd brought the last bomber raid for 149, when 21 of our Lancasters carried out a G-H raid on Bremen, but even so late in the war, the enemy response had been far from silenced, in that thirteen of our aircraft returned with flak damage.
We heard, first as a rumour, then confirmed later, that Hitler had committed suicide, on the 30th of April, and whatever was left of the German High Command was suing for peace which should come at any hour. A new role, arranged by the International Red Cross, now replaced the bombing runs, that of dropping food supplies to the starving Dutch, known as ‘Operation Manna’. For this, a crude canvas arrangement was set up in the bomb bay, very much like a hammock slung from one side to the other. Into this canvas were crammed various boxes of food. By prior agreement with the German High Command, our aircraft would fly along well defined corridors, with no gunners on board, the promise being given by Germany that our planes wouldn’t be attacked on these missions of mercy. The food would be dropped from 500 feet, just as on a bombing run, onto clearly marked sites, the first for 149 being on the 3rd of May, when twelve aircraft took part, the drop zone being just outside of Rotterdam. The American 8th Air Force joined in on Operation Manna, and it must have been quite a sight for the Dutch people to see all of those allied bombers which must have passed high overhead both night and day so many times before, but now at low level, on their daylight food drops.
The end of the war was imminent, and just before our full squadron left on another food drop, the word went out ‘under the table’ to the flight line crews to stand by and be ready for the squadron’s return, as they had a ‘surprise’ for us, as a little thanks for our services. So I stood out in front of the radar section, near the perimeter track, waiting. Gradually the sound of Lancasters could be heard. Not one, but many. Off to the right I could see Lancasters, low down, and in tight formation. It was a sight that would have made any Flying Fortress squadron jealous. They came low directly over the field and it seemed that their wings were interlocked onto one large carpet of aircraft. They circled the field once, and then each aircraft peeled off the formation like fighters, and came in to land, one after the other. One aircraft would be well down the runway, when another one would already be touching down. Flying control, that little checkered hut at the end of the runway, went wild. Red Very flares were being fired one after the other, arcing over the landing aircraft. But the Lancasters kept on coming. After all, were they going to put the whole of the squadron’s air crew, many of them officers, on court-martial charges? It was an exhibition of flying that I shall never forget, and they left me, and I’m sure the other flight line crew standing around, with a ‘thank you’ that would last a life-time.
Eventually on the 8th of May, the announcement was heard over the loudspeaker system all over the base. It was Winston Churchill, telling us that the war with Germany had come to an end. Everyone went wild for a good twenty-four hours. Naturally there was a Victory dance and celebration, the radar section supplying the ‘window’, the metalized strips normally dropped over Germany for jamming German radar, so that trimmings could be made to decorate the ceiling and walls. Those who had served several years in the military could now look forward to demobilization and a return to civilian life. That included Ken Rough, and a good many of the other Canadians, who could now wear their RCAF sergeant’s stripes, and return to Canada. But the war with Japan was still continuing, and there’d be no release for the younger ones, and that included me. Only a day or so after the announcement of Victory in Europe on the 8th of May, word came through that I had been posted. I was being transferred immediately to Coningsby in Lincolnshire, to become a member of 617 squadron, the famous Dam-busters, one of the squadrons of the now forming Far East Striking Force of Bomber Command, to pit our might against the Japanese mainland, to be known as ‘Tiger Force’.