Wings To Operations

 

Flying on operations was the primary reason why I, among other young Americans, had volunteered to join the RCAF for pilot training. To join an active Squadron was the goal, but a lot of time and effort was expelled in achieving this aim. And once there, the time spent on actual operational flying was minimal compared to all the rest. Altogether I spent 1220 of my days in the RCAF, of which 671 were in England, France and Belgium. From October 22nd 1944 to August 28th 1945 I was a member of 21 Squadron which was part of 140 Wing, which in turn was in 2 group, 2nd Tactical Air Force. During that time I flew on only 24 operations while chalking up a total of 720 flying hours, of which only 94 were operational hours. It sounds like a lot of wasted time and effort and felt like it! We were four crews from our OTU that joined 21 Squadron and of those only Flt/Lt Wally Undrill, my navigator, and I survived the war.

No doubt the majority of those who read this are more interested in hearing about the bombing and shooting and the flak etc, but being in the Air Force was much more than that.

The proudest day of all was being presented with my wings at a Wings Day Parade on June 11th 1943. This was followed by more training and waiting until October 12th when 300 RCAF aircrew boarded the Queen Elizabeth with 13 000 Yanks of various ranks and trades for the five day crossing to the UK. There were so many on board that we were told there would be only one meal per day per head, but in fact you could eat whenever you wished, and it was great food. The difficulty was that the QE steered a zigzag course which, combined with rough seas, proved too much for many weak stomachs. We arrived at Greenock on October 18th and entrained to Bournemouth on the 19th.

And there we stayed, kicking our heels until being posted on December 31st - to an EFTS! Flying Tiger Moths! What a let down, where were all the Spitfires?! We remained at 6 EFTS Sywell for just one week and on January 22nd we were dispatched to 14 AFU Banff. Banff was a holding station, pilots then being sent on the RAF Dallachy or RAF Frazerburgh. I went to Dallachy and became acquainted with the Airspeed Oxford. Scarcely an operational aircraft but it was a beautiful six seater twin.

Dallachy, on the shores of the North Sea was hardly a resort centre. The sun only showed itself for three to four hours a day, that's when it wasn't raining and blowing a gale. The Nissen huts were so cold that we ate with one hand in our pocket and slept in our sheepskin flying jackets (which we never wore when flying!) The sole of our shoes wore out rapidly on the wet Scottish rocks and we had half soles with hobnails to replace them. In the dark you could see the sparks flashing from the nails as fellows walked over the rocks. One night, my mates in the hut were trying to get a fire going in the Ben Franklin type coal fire stove and were having little success. I offered them a can of dry cleaning fluid which turned into a white fog when they emptied it into the stove. When they threw in a match the stove jumped about two feet, the chimney pipe flew off and the whole of the hut was covered in black soot! We got warm, cleaning up the mess.

When we got a 48 hour pass, Tex and I would go into Aberdeen, rent a room, fill the meter with shillings and turn that room into a sauna! The maids would come in to tidy and they would open the window and we would holler "Close the damn window!"

We had a lot of spare time at Dallachy, the countryside was beautiful by the banks of the Spey, home to many whisky distilleries. I used this time to go hiking and often passed by the Tochineal estates. I often met a lady walking her Springer spaniels, and it turned out she was the Duchess of Tochineal. One of her pups took a shine to me and one day she asked me if I would like to have it. Would I not, of course I would, so Sheila of Tochineal joined the RAF and spent the rest of my overseas time with me at various bases until VE Day. It would be too difficult to get her back to the States what with customs etc so she went to friends of my nav, Wally, who were being repatriated to their farm in Guernsey.

Another step backward as we were sent back to Bournemouth for a month. Would we ever see an operational aircraft? Then on the 2nd of May I was posted to 9 OTU at Crosby on Eden to convert onto Beaufighters, I was to join Coastal Command. Beaufighters had no dual controls so we had to first solo on Beauforts. This was a cow of an aircraft, heavy and cumbersome, when you throttled right back to practice an emergency landing you didn't glide in, you came down like an elevator. But the controls were much the same as in the Beau and we all managed to solo on the beast without any unfortunate accidents. Then onto the Beau. It was a little difficult at first owing to the torque on take off and our first experience of the Beau was on the older mark that had a flat tail plane. Later marks had a dihedral tail plane that rendered the aircraft that much more stable. And it felt a little strange at first with nothing in front but the windscreen. But once you were used to the aircraft it was great fun. As was demonstrated to every pupil by Squadron Leader Bob Golightly. Taking pupils up for an instructional flight, usually air to ground gunnery, Golightly would put the Beau into a slow roll. As the pupil, or pupils, there were sometimes two, were standing behind him, hanging on to his seat back and not strapped in, they received a sudden surprise when they dropped into the cockpit canopy. All of us were treated to Golightly's slow roll!

Before our first solo we were expected to mingle with a bunch of navigators and crew up. This was a trying process and I wasn't having much luck. One evening, cycling back to base from the Swan, a nearby pub, I heard some moaning and cussing by the side of the road. I got off my bike and found a Flt/Lt navigator tangled up in some barbed wire which was protecting an unused road that led to the airfield. I got him untangled and helped drag his bike out of the barbed wire. We introduced ourselves and I asked him what he was doing at Crosby. "I'm supposed to find a driver and return to ops" he said.
"And I'm a pilot looking for a navigator, how about meeting up for breakfast and getting better acquainted?" I replied. Next morning, Wally Undrill and I had breakfast together and decided to crew up together. He had been flying Beaus in the Middle East when he and his Sqdn/Ldr pilot were shot down. His pilot was killed but Wally was pulled from the wreckage by some friendly arabs and picked up later by the British Army. Later, he was crewed up with another pilot and when taking off to fly to Malta they were straffed and crashed on the runway, both receiving bad burns. The pilot never flew again, but here, a year later, was Wally back at OTU looking for yet another pilot! I couldn't have been luckier to get such an experienced navigator, though I did have slight misgivings, three strikes and you're out and he's survived the first two! But I kept my thoughts to myself! Perhaps he was destined to be a survivor, which, it transpired, he was!

Wally had Observers O wings rather than navigators N for which he was rather proud. We made a pretty good team despite his dim view of Yanks and his preference for straight and level flight. I would ask him what were the speeds for a loop or a roll and he would always reply that such aerobatics were not allowed in a Beau to which I would reply "Buckle up while I find out!" He tolerated all my sloppy attempts and we ended up great friends throughout the years until he passed away in 1989. At the conclusion of the course I was graded average as pilot and above average for gunnery. The other pilots said they must have been using the same colour bullets as I was during the aerial gunnery exercises.

We were a month into the course when the D Day landings occurred and the powers that be decided there was a greater need for Mosquito intruder crews than shipping strike Beaufighters. Which was lucky for us as survival rate was higher on the Mosquito than on Beaufighters engaged in shipping strikes. But we continued to the end of the course and after five days leave moved to 13 OTU at Bicester to convert onto Mosquitoes. Would training never end? Surely we must be close to joining a squadron at long last? I did 42 hours on the Mossie at Bicester, was graded above average as pilot, average in navigation and bombing and above average in air to air gunnery. Wally enjoyed the Mossie far more than the Beau. He was sitting up front beside me where he could see all that occurred in the cockpit rather than sitting ten feet back in the bowels of the Beau. He also had better access to me to protest any manoeuvres of which he didn't approve! And I preferred him to be sitting up front beside me.

At the end of the course we were packed off to Swanton Morley in Suffolk and at last came to the reality of war. Here we were issued with all sorts of escape equipment, uniform buttons that had a reverse screw to reveal a minute compass, pencils that broke at a weak point to reveal another compass, combs that contained files. A silk escape map of Europe that we had sewn into our battle dress. The Hun knew all about such devices of course but there was the hope that carrying so many, one or two might be overlooked. We were also issued with our service revolver and escape kits containing food capsules, benzedrine to keep you awake, sleeping tablets all housed in a curved plastic type box that would sit comfortably (one hoped) inside one's battle dress when on an operation.

Finally on October 22nd 1944 we joined 21 Squadron and Wally and I were in B flight commanded by Sqdn /Ldr Tony Carlisle. Tony had been an army officer before remustering to RAF aircrew after Dunkirk. Trained in the US, he received his wings at Falcon Field, Phoenix Arizona and had completed a tour on Blenheims, a second tour on Hudsons and Bostons and was now leading a flight on a 3rd tour, this time on Mosquitoes. After the war I spent three delightful days with Tony and his wife in 1991. We dined at the Red Lion in Hendon, at their home near hendon and on a visit to Blenheim Castle we lunched at a pub I used to frequent when stationed at Bicester. On our first night Tony mentioned how well I had fitted in on the squadron. For which I thanked him but then asked "Why did it seem to me that I only got to fly when the weather was bad and flew so few ops?"
"How many hours did you have when you joined 21" he asked.
"422" I replied to which he laughed and said that was more than he had after he had finished his 3rd tour.

Sheila was in seventh heaven at Thorney Island as there were a number of dogs on the Wing and there was easy access to the mess via the missing glass in the french windows. Group Captain Wykeham-Barnes, 140 Wing's CO had a miniature pincher which he often carried in the breast pocket of his battle dress. Our quarters were in a solidly built brick building with rooms as good as a quality hotel and Wally and I had a twin room with all mod cons. Thorney was later referred to as the RAF Hilton. The food was excellent, even though we had our share of sprouts and mutton. One morning three of us were having breakfast when a WAAF squadron Leader came by and introduced herself as the Wing nutrition officer. "How's your breakfast?" she asked. Tex, a fellow American, knowing full well that we were eating kidneys on toast asked in an innocent fashion "What is it?" to which she replied "Kidneys on toast". "Aren't you supposed to boil the piss out of them before you cook them?" said Tex. She went stomping off in a huff and we wondered whether there would be repercussions but we heard no more about Tex's little joke. Tex was KIA on operation Clarion on February 22nd 1945.

On November 22nd, Sqdn/Ldr Carlisle led a flight of six to a field near Liverpool where we were to do searchlight co operation. We did low level formation practice on the way there. In the afternoon, we were lying around waiting for our evening flight when we heard an aircraft coming out of the 2000ft overcast. It was a USAAF B17 which came straight in, bounced a couple of times and slid to a stop. It was a real mess, the tail gunner was dead and the rest of the crew came piling out as we ran out behind the crash trucks to see if we could help. The pilot was a redheaded Lieutenant and quite obviously shaken. I asked him if he'd like a cigarette and he replied "I sure would" but when I gave him one and my lighter he was shaking so badly he couldn't light it so I took back the lighter, lit a cigarette and gave it to him. Then the ambulances and a truck arrived and took them away which was the last we heard of them.

Next morning, when we were taxiing out for the return flight to Thorney, my Mossie started to overheat so I asked permission for immediate take off and to join the formation when they were airborne. Off we went and I turned downwind and there below were the five Mossies taxiing out, led by Sqdn/Ldr Carlisle. The temptation was too great, I did a wing over, came down head on to Carlisle then pulled up in a climbing roll so that we were upside down a couple of hundred feet above him. "Now you've done it Kirk" said Wally "I'll be looking for a new driver tomorrow." Alarmed I said to him "You don't mean it". "No, I won´t drop you but Carlisle sure as Hell will!" he replied. I was suitably chastened all the way back to Thorney and sure enough when we landed our ground crew told me I was to report to the flight commander immediately. I walked into Carlisle's office as smartly as possible and stood at attention before him. "Kirkpatrick" he barked "I never want to see a Mosquito lower than me when I am taxiing. Is that UNDERSTOOD!" "Yes sir" and I was dismissed. I never heard another word about it until we were eating dinner at the Red Lion years later. "Only been on the squadron a few days and you pulled a trick like that, I couldn't believe it" he said. Thankfully he had recognised my youthful enthusiasm for the Mossie.

Thorney's call sign was Bedrock, 21 was Dumbell and I was Dumbell 33. 487's callsign was Curfew and I believe I am right in thinking that 464 was Hunter. We flew in a lot of bad weather in the winter of 44 /45 so we often used GCA (ground controlled approach). One wet and windy night in December, returning Mossies were stacked at 500 ft intervals over a pundit 14 miles north of Thorney. The procedure was for the lowest aircraft to be put on GCA and as it landed, all other aircraft would descend 500 ft. This was a long and wearisome process on the return from an operation and at one stage a plaintive voice with a heavy Australian accent was heard "Hello Bedrock, this is Hunter 22, I'm 500ft below sea level. Permission to surface and pancake". The mess sorted itself out eventually and we all had a drink to our submariner.

On February 10th 1945, which was my 23rd birthday, 21 squadron moved from Thorney to Rosieres in France, where we were stationed until April 20th. For some reason that February, I found myself ferrying various bods between Rosieres and Thorney, tying up loose ends no doubt. My log book reads Feb 15th Sqdn/Ldr Fletcher, Feb 19th Sqdn /Ldr Clayton and Sqdn/Ldr Woods, Feb 20th Flt/Lt Freeman and F/O Mercer. Didn't know any of them but I was proud to get to know Clayton. He had chalked up 100 operations as a navigator, remustered and earned his pilot's wings and was a flight commander on 487 squadron.

On March 20th I flew a mark IV film production unit Mossie to Fersfield where I picked up a Sergeant camera man preparatory to our following operation Carthage, the raid on the Shell house building in Copenhagen. We followed 21, 487 and 464 squadrons and filmed as much of the raid as we could. Subsequent to this, on June 30th, a large formation of Mossies from 140 Wing put on an airshow over Copenhagen and we met members of the Danish underground resistance. It was a wonderful three days where I learned never to try and keep up with a Dane in drinking and never run round with a croquet mallet while Danes are singing their "Run Around A Croquet Mallet" song! On the way back to Brussels from this do I was honoured to have Wing Commander Sismore, later Air Commodore, as my passenger who was at that time 140 Wing's navigational officer.

Brussels was a great place to end the war, lots of parties for returning POWs and the US 9th Army was there so we had jeeps, bourbon and other goodies in exchange for a ride in a Mossie. I was in Brussels until August 3rd 1945 when I made my last flight in a Mossie, Brussels to Hern. From there I went to Plymouth where I boarded the Duchess of Egypt, arriving at Quebec on August 28th and finally home to Cleveland Ohio on August 30th.

So there you have it, there was a lot more to RAF life than being surrounded by ME109s or FW 190s, flak so heavy that you could get out and walk on it or being upside down while coned in searchlights. There were plenty of fun times too.

F/O Robert E. Kirkpatrick RCAF J26207, September 2010

 
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