Much Ado about Nothing - Part 2
By James Lester SOLE MBE
Abridged by Bob Sheldon
This article was originally published in the December 2003 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society
CLOUDS ARE FORMING
During the first two years following their marriage Jim and Grace lived in their rented bungalow in Margate which was built about thirty feet above the road with steps leading down to the footpath. ‘I can vouch for this. I fell down these steps (carrying a bicycle over my shoulders) and hit every one on the way down.’ Then they moved into a large flat on the edge of a large and beautiful park about a mile from the centre of town. Their joy was complete when they learned that they were to become parents, but there was a cloud on the horizon.
‘For two or three years now the papers had been busy reporting on the protestations of a funny looking little man rather like Charlie Chaplin who was apparently spending most of his time angrily demanding the return of land taken from the Germans at the end of the 1914-1918 war. He wanted it for living space he said, and to stop the barbaric treatment of the minority Germans living in these lands. He also wanted the return of a lot more land taken from the war-loving Germans after previous wars they had not won. Then in September 1939 Hitler (as this seemingly harmless little man was named) invaded Poland.’
‘War was declared on Germany on 3rd September 1939 at 11a.m. and the sirens went off five minutes later. We all expected an immediate blitz . . . however it was a false alarm, and things settled down for about six months inaction. However on 1st November Georgina, my eldest daughter, was born and we became very busy changing, feeding and doing all those things young babies bring with them.’
Jim recalls that the Government moved quickly issuing air raid shelters which had to be installed in a hole five feet deep. It took him and his neighbour a few weeks but when they had finished they ‘sat back in a glow of self-satisfaction and waited for the war to begin.’ They had to fit black-out curtains to every window in the flat and every third night Jim became involved at the Operations Centre dealing with raids and other Civil Defence duties. His job in the Engineer’s office at the Borough Council was declared a reserved occupation so he would not be called up to National Service.
‘Early one morning on a day in late August, 1940 I received a telephone call from the Chief of the Air Raid Precautions Centre, that a German Dornier bomber had been shot down on the rocks at North Foreland . . . I went and had a good close inspection of the machine . . . and then went to the morgue to take a look [at the crew]. The sirens were just sounding as we left the morgue and ten minutes later the sky was full of . . . scores of fighter aircraft . . . The Battle of Britain had begun!’
‘I tell you – life was not worth living in our part of the world. Enemy fighters and bombers were flying low over Margate and using the area generally as a training ground. Suddenly I felt what mortal danger we were in. Already there were reports of large scale building up of fleets of landing barges in Dutch ports, and we were being shelled from the French coast by twelve inch shells. I made up my mind what to do. I’d had a belly-full of being on the receiving end, and decided to do some thing positive.’
Jim applied for his exemption from military service to be lifted and it was granted. He wanted to be a fighter pilot and applied to the Royal Air Force. He had his medical examination within a fortnight, but bad news. The Chief Medical Officer ‘was very blunt, and told me that if ever I piloted an aeroplane he didn’t want to be anywhere near me. Apparently I had a defect in my left eye . . . which would make landing an aircraft very difficult if not impossible.’ However he was informed that the RAF was forming a new section called “Special Duties” which would be working with aircrew and would involve some flying duties. ‘This sounded just the thing, so I promptly enlisted.’
Jim made arrangements to send Grace and the baby to Torquay on the south coast where he judged they would be as safe as anywhere. While he waited for his calling up papers he continued at the Operations Centre three nights a week. This was situated in a local theatre on the coast where he was able to make good use of ‘a full size concert grand piano (in complete darkness). The surroundings and circumstances lent an air of mystery to the occasion and made my playing sound a good deal better than it really was. I derived a great deal of comfort from this harmless practice. I was missing my family very badly.’
His RAF papers arrived and he describes his thoughts at the time. ‘What was I doing? I had a wife and daughter and was volunteering to give up everything for what, at the best, was an uncertain future. All I had to do to convince myself was to pick up the paper and look at the photographs – the refugees being mercilessly machine-gunned by aircraft, the complete gutting of cities by bombing, and ask myself – would we be treated any differently, and even if we were wasn’t it time we all resisted? Of course, there was only one answer. This makes me sound a bit heroic. Well I don’t mean it to. I am not, and wasn’t at that time the least bit brave. It was just we were at the end of the road.’
He was required to report to Blackpool, ‘so off I went to conquer the hordes of Hitler, to make the world a better place!!’ Jim was placed into one of the four squads earmarked for “special duties”. They were kitted out and sent to a private billet at a boarding house on the sea front. He was conscious that his fellow recruits were ‘all a cut above the average and would leave me standing academically. However I reminded myself, this was a physical twelve weeks, and at least in that I would be equal. Anything above that the Air Force would have to teach me.’
‘Our instructor . . . introduced himself as a drill corporal seconded from the Indian Army. He had a curious habit of being able to keep his forage cap on the side of his head without having his head cocked sideways – something none of us could do, try as we might. . . He had a very fancy turn of phrase, and seemed convinced that none of us were aware of whom our parents were. . . he called me a “stupid bastard” because it took me a while to master a difficult turn on the march. I . . . came to rigid attention and requested permission to see the Commanding Officer. The red faced angry NCO asked me why. I said I wanted to introduce the CO to my parents and also show him my birth certificate. (Little did he know he was only a few months wrong). The Corporal, in spite of his violent temper proved himself a man and apologised . . . we all accepted him after this incident as a good airman who took his job seriously.’
Back at the boarding house conditions were bad. The woman in charge was very unfriendly and the food was not good and got steadily worse. ‘At every dinner time the Orderly Officer for the day came round, inspected the food, and asked if there was any complaint. Of course, nobody said a thing. Rumour had it that if you complained you were put on a charge. However, after a week of this I stood up . . . and said the food was not fit to eat. He tasted it and promptly put me on a charge for “inciting a mutiny”. Next morning I was up before the Wing Commander . . . and he asked me if I had anything to say. Being me, of course I had, and I related exactly what had happened. He explained how difficult it was to get accommodation and training space for troops and then dismissed the charge. . . The meals improved though some parcels sent to us, containing cigarettes and home made cakes, etc., never reached us. However by some queer coincidence, on the day we left some person put quick setting cement in the drains round the house which took water from the roof, and caused the dear lady quite a lot of inconvenience.’
‘I had enjoyed training and thought the discipline had done me good. The service life appealed to me.’ At its conclusion Jim was posted to his first operations unit but before that he was given two week’s leave which he spent at Torquay with Grace and the baby.
Fairwood Common was an RAF Fighter Command station in South Wales. On arrival Jim was immediately sent on a Deputy Controller’s course. ‘I had a very busy month learning about navigation, aircraft recognition, aircraft performance, meteorology, and other relative subjects. On my return I was made up to corporal and thrown in the deep end. I was given three days to collect my thoughts and then put on duty in the Operations Room as a Deputy Controller. My job was to give the pilot’s course, speed and height to fly to intercept enemy aircraft . . . a very difficult task . . . there was no radar.’
Jim tells of an event which occurred about a week after he started in the Operations Room. They received a report from the Observer Corps of an enemy aircraft some 120 miles north travelling south towards them. ‘Trouble was that by the time the Observer Corps had decided on the height, type and course of the bandit, it could be three or four minutes after aircraft had been sighted. . . it could be as much as twenty miles ahead of the plot originally given.’ He explains in detail the limitations of their facilities at that time in pin-pointing both the enemy and the position of the RAF fighters. Then ‘after establishing the aircraft was hostile, the first thing to do was to scramble (get airborne) a flight of two fighters, which I did at once. If it was a false alarm, it would prove a good exercise for the fighters, but if they got airborne too late it could be fatal in the event of a bombing attack. . . I gave my fighters a course south then, from the rough course I had of the target, laid off an extension for about twenty minutes, allowing for cruising speed and wind drift. When I had my fighters in a position between the sun and the rough course of the target I instructed them to orbit. Every few minutes I was informing my fighters exactly what was happening and what I was intending to do. . . Then after about ten minutes I thought I had failed . It was not so, almost immediately a voice came over the radio telephone from Red Leader, “Tally ho, we have him – just where you said he would be – going in”. Then there was almost total silence . . . then “Take us home please. He’s in the sea. No survivors”. Everybody was delighted. Teas and cigarettes appeared and the Chief Controller . . . told me to put a third stripe up at once and handed me an application form for a commission.’
‘For a while I experienced depression at the thought of having been instrumental in the death of six people – I thought of the six dead bodies I had morbidly viewed in the morgue at Margate, and I must confess it was a feeling I was to experience several times later, until I got so mixed up in the whole filthy business I became part of the machine and subdued such finer feelings.’
A more light hearted experience occurred at two o’clock one morning. Things were quiet, the Controller was snoozing and Jim was reading a paper. ‘Suddenly . . . the sound of a very shrill bell . . . had the same affect as if a bomb had been dropped in the room. The sergeant in charge had pressed the bell to indicate that a hostile plot had appeared on the table, and I nearly had a fit. I immediately awoke the Controller, who came to the dais muttering profanities. The plot showed one bandit, followed by the figures 8 and 30. . . they told me that the aircraft was eight feet high travelling at 30 miles per hour. Some wise guy had passed a plot of a Heinkel 111 German bomber, which was being transported from where it had been shot down to an RAF station. It was eight feet off the ground and travelling at 30 miles per hour.’
Jim was apprehensive about taking a commission. His main concern was the pay as a pilot officer – the lowest rank. He really was aspiring to be a warrant officer. He eventually decided to accept a commission if it were offered, which it was. ‘I wanted to get into the real meat of the job, and this was the only way to do it.’ He was posted to an Officers’ Training Unit which included a two week’s assault and unarmed combat course. ‘Up to then I had fondly imagined I was fit, but I was speedily disillusioned, and after climbing poles, ropes and anything sticking up in the air, we were then assaulted by diminutive rough looking corporals . . . throwing us all over the station. I excelled at bayonet drill . . . and to my surprise I won the competition for the best pistol shot. My instructor always put on a show of closely examining my bull’s-eye card suspecting fraud.’ At the end of the course Jim was posted to the branch of the Air Force, near Newcastle upon Tyne, ‘directly concerned with the interception of enemy aircraft – in other words to the “special duties” I had enlisted for. At last!’
However he quickly got bored; the German raids began to get less in the north and became concentrated on the Midlands and the South. He was posted again, this time to Neatishead in Norfolk close to a night fighter station. ‘Little happened here except I got quite friendly with an old boy who ran a saddle shop, and when I could spare the time I used to help him by stitching leather to saddles, etc., and made Grace a large leather shopping bag, which she thought a good war effort.’ Within six months he was on his way again to Sopley near to Bournemouth on the south coast.
This posting was more to Jim’s liking, he was in active operations and for a while was seconded to an American unit nearby. This was about September 1943 and ‘there was a faint scent of invasion in the air. . . we could all guess what was going to happen, the point was when?’ He was enjoying the life both on and off duty. He was a keen footballer and played for the station team when possible but ‘things were hotting up and leave was becoming scarce’ during the approach to the D-Day landings in June 1944.
Grace had moved back to Broadstairs and now pregnant with Susan who was born in December. ‘I can remember as if it were yesterday how the news was given to me. It was about noon, and we were in the bar, our C.O. carrying a twelve-bore rifle under his arm. He rather fancied himself as a country squire. An airman came in with a telegraph form which stated that Grace had delivered a second daughter. I read it to the mess, and the C.O. let out a huge bellow and said we must celebrate. He then levelled his rifle at the bar, fired, and blew a b***** great hole in it. That was a court martial offence but nobody seemed to worry about it. We celebrated all night and it cost me two bottles of whisky, money well spent.’
For a while nothing untoward happened then Jim received notice that he was being posted overseas and was given embarkation leave. This greatly worried him as Grace had been gradually developing arthritis. She was finding it difficult to move around but she ‘would not hear of me pleading to be excused from overseas service on compassionate grounds and insisted on me going. I made her promise to let me know immediately if she became much worse, when I could probably fly home. Now I feel very strongly that I should never have gone.’
Jim’s posting to Australia was at a large airfield named Camden near Sydney. ‘I think the original idea was for us to get fitted with mobile intercepting radar units and squadrons of night fighters and then to go up to the islands and countries still partly occupied by the Japs, but momentous news reached us very shortly that the Americans had dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in Japan followed by another on Nagasaki two or three days later.’
Although there was much work to be done running engines, spares and personnel up to the islands, life settled down to a monotonous grind. But there were some amusing and some less amusing incidents which he relates. ‘I used to knock around with a navigator, “Dusty” Miller and when he received a posting to Melbourne I went down with him in a DC3 for the trip. On our arrival he reported to the Orderly Room with all his kit, and the Station Adjutant told him that they had been waiting a long time for him to report and deal with the legal work at the Station. Dusty told the Adjutant that he was not a legal man and the Adjutant turned purple and said “But you used to be a Town Clerk in civilian street and they have to be solicitors”. Dusty told him he had not been a town clerk but a time clerk.’ There came back some rather colourful language and Dusty was told to return to Camden.
On the return journey to Camden ‘we had hardly been airborne an hour when we lost an engine. Well we did not actually lose it. It just spat fire, coughed out white smoke and stopped. We had on board a dirty great radial engine and about twelve sailors with all their kit bags etc. The old DC3 will happily fly on one engine but not with all the gear we were carrying. She began to wallow and lose height very slowly.’ The captain radioed the nearest base and was directed to land at an abandoned airstrip nearby. ‘In the meantime we had thrown out any heavy stuff . . . including to the fury of the owners, several heavy kitbags . . . and we landed okay after running through an old shed and some fencing, and settled down to wait for another aircraft.’
It arrived some four hours later and they continued their journey in the replacement aircraft. ‘It wasn’t our lucky day. We were airborne only a quarter of an hour and ran into severe electric storms . . . which put our radio, homing devices and compass out of order. The pilot decided to fly east out to sea and reduce height to see where we were . We could not risk reducing height over land.’ Eventually they turned west and made landfall just south of Sydney. ‘Then followed a hair-raising flight between the tall chimneys which used to surround Sydney, and I remember the propellers had a bright blue ring of lightning round their tips on occasions. At last we were down in the dusk, after spending about ten hours on a five hundred mile journey. I can assure you that never has a whisky tasted better.’
Jim had only one leave in Australia and this he spent on a cattle station in Queensland the home of the family of a pilot friend named Dan Capel. He was astonished to find in the middle of their large sitting room on a dais about six inches high, ‘a magnificent grand piano, and seated playing it Mrs Capel, Dan’s mother.’ He was even more astonished to discover that the Capels had earlier ‘lived in a big house on an estate very close to where I had lived at St Peters in England. What an astonishing coincidence!’
‘I heard from Grace fairly regularly. The children were well and she said she was well. Little did I know the whole truth though I half suspected.’
Eventually Jim received news of his demobilisation and embarkation for home. They set sail and first stop was Wellington and Jim’s first visit to New Zealand where they were to pick up more passengers and cargo. He cannot remember the name of the ship but when it was not ploughing through huge seas it, and the passengers were suffering intense sun for several days. ‘In the services . . . the doctors treat sunburn with a brightly coloured purple ointment. Whether it cures or not I cannot say, but it certainly marks you out for the rest of the world to see what a twit you have been not covering up.’
‘We had a peculiar nuisance on board. The nights became hideous with some idiot playing a mouth organ . . . and although we set traps we never caught the culprit. Then we had a piece of luck , a nark informed me . . . that Paddy was the soloist. I suddenly had a brain wave. A ship’s concert was scheduled in a couple of days time and I was the MC. After several people had performed I went on the stage and told the audience that the next turn would be given by Paddy, who would play us a solo on his mouth organ. Paddy looked bewildered and I said “Come on, Paddy I know you can play. I think we have all heard you recently.” He grinned and came sheepishly on the stage and played very well indeed and was riotously applauded by everybody. From that moment the night recitals ceased.’
The ship docked at Tilbury in the Port of London. ‘Immediately the chief Customs Officer came to see our CO, with whom I happened to be. He wanted all the cabins at stand-by with their occupants and baggage ready, and he proposed to open cases at random. He was a tall bony man, with a bald head. He and his entourage then descended to the bowels of the ship to start his search. I noticed that on deck there was a steadily growing pile of luggage which had apparently been dealt with, and the CO and I had an idea. Suddenly scores of airmen, NCOs and Officers were taking luggage from their cabins and stacking it in piles alongside Air Force lorries which were waiting to take it to our disembarkation station. By the time the custom officials returned to the upper decks practically all our gear had been loaded into the lorries. The Chief Customs Officer was furious, and we summoned our Warrant Officer and asked him how this had occurred. He stated that it was common knowledge that the Customs Officers had given orders for this to be done, and search as we did we could not find the source of this completely wrong but fortuitous information. Of course, Baldy blew a fuse, but he could not spare the time to unload the lorries, and he very reluctantly signed our release. I think he guessed what had happened, but as I pointed out to him rumour is very difficult to pin down and we had not got the time to trace the culprit, though, of course, it would be our first duty after our discharge.’
At the disembarkation station in the Midlands Jim collected his demobilisation suit, travel warrant, ration card and some pay. ‘Then I was free. It was an anti-climax, so much so that I felt more like crying than laughing. After nearly six years of hard concentration and discipline I was out. I had imagined I would be happy, but I was not. In fact I felt as though I had lost something very precious. This feeling lasted a short time, The prospect of seeing my family swept it away.’
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