Interview with Percival Robert Court


Interview with Percival Robert Court


Percival Robert Court joined the Air Training Corps in March 1941, volunteering for the Royal Air Force at the earliest age of seventeen and a half. Training at RAF Cardington, he became a flight mechanic. He then moved to Skegness to continue into formal training, including lectures on sex education and venereal disease. He states that sex was never discussed and that it was taboo and rumours they were putting bromide in the water. Alongside this, he outlines several examples of social meetings within the base staff, including shared songs and daily prayers at RAF Hednesford, as well as when his father died in 1943 and he relied on his wing commander to help him through the tough ordeal. He then recounts his training and experiences at RAF Hednesford, explaining the very high marks that were required to continue on his mechanic course as well as commonly having to take guard shifts and night operations. Percival was posted to Heavy Conversion Unit 1651 at RAF Waterbeach, of which he then outlines his daily required workings and several experiences with Stirlings and Lancasters. He also sets aside time to remember his brother, who was captured at Arnhem, being imprisoned for the remainder of the war. Based at RAF Halton, Percival took a course that allowed him to be promoted, as well as higher pay, learning information about American aircraft and spending his weekends in wartime London. When the war came to an end, he was given 48 hours to leave the base and no celebration. Percival Robert Court believes his mother saved his life by not letting him go to a grammar school, explaining that if she had, he would have died in an aircrew.



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00:57:38 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the, Monday the 11th of December 2017 and I am in Reading with Bob Court to talk about his life and times and starting with what are your earliest recollections of life, Bob?
PC: I don’t know. Being [pause] at a place called Organford where there were floods. My mother was sat with her feet in the water and nursing me. Then the old chap was going off to work and he left his Hunter watch on the bed head so I could hear it ticking. That’s my earliest memory.
CB: What did your father do?
PC: He was a post office engineer. Linesman.
CB: Whereabouts?
PC: Dorset.
CB: And what did that involve?
PC: Well, in those days the, during the winter months the snow would bring the lines down and they had to go and put them back up. So it meant travelling about all over the place.
CB: Right. And where did you go to school?
PC: Poole. National school. National Boy School, Poole.
CB: Any exciting times there?
PC: Oh yeah. I thought they were all exciting [laughs] Yeah. It was ok. I managed to keep to the top of the heap all the time so life was pretty, pretty easy.
CB: Did you develop a main interest?
PC: Woodwork, I suppose. I don’t know. My mother wouldn’t let me go to the Grammar School. They wanted me to go and take the exam. But my mother wouldn’t let me go.
CB: Why was that?
PC: Probably she couldn’t afford it. But in, in retrospect I say she probably saved my life.
CB: Because?
PC: If you’d have gone to the Grammar School you’d have been aircrew.
CB: Right.
PC: Not many of them survived.
CB: Right. Right. And what age did you leave school?
PC: Fourteen.
CB: Then what?
PC: Then what? Well, I worked for this furniture company. And then when I was old enough volunteered for the Air Force.
CB: Yeah. But first of all what did you do?
PC: What do you mean what did I do?
CB: Well, immediately after you left school what did you do? Before you went to the furniture company.
PC: I worked for a friend of a member of the family who had a radio business. And I suppose, I don’t know when I turned up, when they packed up. And I went to the Labour Exchange because I had a suit on I suppose they thought here’s a chap for the shop, for this furniture store.
CB: So what did you do in the furniture business?
PC: Well, repairing, French polishing. All sorts of things really. Selling it. Delivering it.
CB: You said you were interested in carpentry at school. So did that put you in good stead for what you were doing for the furniture company?
PC: I suppose it did in a way. Yes. I suppose it did.
CB: So were you an apprentice there or —
PC: Yeah.
CB: Right. And how long were apprenticeships in those days?
PC: This one was three years I think it was. Yeah. Three years, I think. Three years, I think. Three or four years.
CB: So, you were born in 1924.
PC: Yeah.
CB: And that meant that when the war started what age were you?
PC: Fifteen.
CB: And what reaction did you feel with the start of the war?
PC: Pretty good [laughs] I didn’t think we were going to lose. Never entered my head that we might lose. I didn’t realise how close it was but at the time no you wouldn’t. Never thought of it.
CB: So, this is when you’re working for the furniture company.
PC: Yeah.
CB: What did you do that was related to the war at that stage because you were too young to sign up.
PC: I did a bit of firewatching. We had to do that every night. Well, not one night a week at least. Then they started introducing payment so I did two nights. Sometimes three. It wasn’t very onerous.
CB: What did you have to do?
PC: Well, just keep a watch out for incendiary bombs because they were using a lot of those at the time. And put out any fires they might cause. Fortunately, in my area they didn’t cause any. So I was alright. Not bad at all.
CB: So what did they, what title did you have for that task? Fire watching. Was that ARP or what was it?
PC: No. It wasn’t ARP. Just fire watchers or something.
CB: Right.
PC: I don’t know. Who was it introduced it? [pause] I think it was Morrison, wasn’t it? Morrison.
CB: Herbert Morrison [pause] But what did you actually have to do in fire watching?
PC: Well, keep, keep an, keep your eyes open for any incendiaries that might land near you.
CB: I was thinking did you have a base to work from or did you walk the streets or what did you do?
PC: No. We had a room over a shop that we used to sleep in. And any air raids we’d go out and wander around the streets.
CB: Right. And you had a supervisor or who controlled what you were doing?
PC: Yeah. We had a chap who owned one of the shops. Well, he owned a chemist shop and he was the chap in charge. Yeah.
CB: So what did you find in there?
PC: Hmmn?
CB: You’re looking in your book. What have you got in there?
PC: Oh, I’m just trying to remember what was going on. The Dunkirk business.
CB: Well, we can come back. Let’s talk about Dunkirk then. So you remember Dunkirk in 1940.
PC: Yeah.
CB: What do you remember particularly about that?
PC: Well, when was it?
CB: Because you’re in Weymouth.
PC: Germany attacked Poland. No. I was in Poole then.
CB: Oh, in Poole were you?
PC: The Phoney War. Holland. The occupation of Denmark and Norway. The evacuation of Dunkirk. I remember watching soldiers coming in to Poole Quay on any craft that could make the journey.
CB: Right. When they landed then what happened to them?
PC: Tea, cigarettes, beer and food being given to the bemused troops. Pitiful to see them. Did not appreciate —
CB: What sort of state were they in?
PC: Not very happy. Glad to be out of where they were though.
CB: Were they upright, bedraggled or what were they?
PC: Well, they were a bit bedraggled but apart from that they were ok. Glad to be out of there. That was all.
CB: Yes.
PC: Yeah.
CB: So after that you continued with your fire watching.
PC: Yes.
CB: Did you join the ATC or —
PC: Yeah. Yeah. I joined the Air Training Corps.
CB: Right. And when was that? That was when you were what age? Was it at the time of fire watching?
PC: Yeah. Obviously [pause] when were the ATC formed? When was that?
PC: Yeah. Herbert Morrison was the one who said all persons between sixteen and sixty register for fire watching duties.
CB: Right.
PC: So, I, they used to pay four and sixpence. Twenty two and a half pence per night. I didn’t earn much so I volunteered to do two and sometimes three nights a week.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Which helped my salary immensely.
CB: Can you remember what you earned when you were working for the furniture company?
PC: Yeah. Twelve [pause] twelve and sixpence.
CB: Did you?
PC: Or sixty two and a half pence.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Per week. The Air Training Corps was in 1941. And I joined in March 1941.
CB: The ATC.
PC: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. So, now you’re coming up to be old enough to join the forces. What made you join the RAF rather than the Army or the Navy?
PC: As I said, I couldn’t swim. And I didn’t like the brown jobs. They got too close. So, I thought the Air Force might be a bit safer.
CB: Right.
PC: Which it proved to be.
CB: So, what, what was the process then of joining up?
PC: I went to [pause] where did I go? I went up to Southampton I think. Volunteered.
CB: Did you go to Cardington as a start?
PC: Yeah.
CB: What happened at Cardington?
PC: I went to [pause] joined [pause — pages turning] Yeah. Cardington. Somewhere. I volunteered. It was possible to volunteer at seventeen and a half.
CB: Yeah.
PC: I did that in February ‘42. Volunteered for service as a flight mechanic.
CB: Right.
PC: Report to the centre of Southampton for a medical and attestation. Bear true allegiance to His Majesty King George the Sixth, his heirs and successors blah blah blah. Got the King’s Shilling in the form of a postal order.
CB: Oh, you did. Right.
PC: I was hoping to be given a shilling but they didn’t. They give me a bloody postal order. I should have saved it but I didn’t. So, I went to, and I was with the ATC at their Fleet Air Arm place at Sandbanks and I had to report to Cardington.
CB: Right.
PC: Yeah. Never been outside the county ‘til then.
CB: So, what did you do at Cardington?
PC: Got kitted out. Did some tests. We had to fill out, yeah fill out all these books. Tests. I was about to decide what we would do. Test booklets. Fill in name and number. Answer all the questions you could. Such things as mathematics, simple science, English diagrams to determine which way cogs might revolve around levers and pulleys operated. Seemed to go on for hours and days by the end of it. Afterwards when discussing with others how they thought they had fared I began to realise that not all of us were as well equipped as others. In fact, the lad I travelled with from Poole had found the exercise very daunting. Then we were interviewed by, about technical matters school, blah blah blah. Issued with uniforms and equipment. Everything. Dog tags and whatever. When all this was going on the, an airman came and called out your name. Gather up your kit and follow him. My friend from Poole was amongst us. ‘Where are you going?’ I asked. ‘I’ve been selected for the RAF regiment.’ Soon our numbers were quite depleted. We slept soundly that night.
CB: So, are you saying not everybody was accepted in to the RAF?
PC: They were accepted into the RAF but not in what they wanted to do.
CB: Right.
PC: Like this chap that came with me was put in the RAF regiment.
CB: Yes. So, what other jobs would they have put them into?
PC: Well, there was cooks.
CB: Yeah.
PC: All sorts of things I think. Different. Different. I’m trying to think really.
CB: But you’d been identified as somebody to work, you said earlier as a rigger.
PC: Yeah.
CB: Is that because you asked for that or they suggested that’s what you should do?
PC: Well, no. What happens, you were sort of all lined up and said, I would say about sixty or so of us and those who wished to be air frame mechanics to cross to the other side of the room. Not a soul moved. Didn’t know what he was bloody talking about.
CB: No.
PC: ‘Right,’ he said, said to the group, he said, ‘All those on the left engines. Those on the right airframe.’ That’s how I became a flight mechanic air frame.
CB: Right.
PC: That’s it.
CB: Was this chap a corporal or —
PC: It was better actually than the engines. I thought so anyway. And we went from Cardington to Skegness for square bashing.
CB: What else did you do at Skegness?
PC: Just the initial training. Marching up and down.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Cracking the paving stones.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Then we were —
CB: Was there any classroom work? It wasn’t square bashing all the time was it?
PC: Square. Well, most of the times. Yeah.
CB: And from there?
PC: Didn’t have any rifles so we had wooden replica rifles. Bayonet practice with pikes. Scaffold tubing with the bayonets welded on. Bayonet practice we charged at straw filled sacks on wooden frames and around again. We were encouraged to scream and shout the meanest of obscenities as we charged forward. Urged on by the instructors. In, out, Oh God, out the ground, left, right, right, oh dear. Oh dear. Unarmed combat was taught. Be invited to charge the instructor with a rifle and bayonet, and we’d be tipped ass over head in no uncertain manner. How we would fare in real combat was never really put to the test. The assault courses, climb wire, barbed wire, rope netting. Crossing streams and, oh dear. Did guard duty. We’d sit on the seafront with a machine gun on the beach. Wend our way through the mines laid on the beach, ropes and tape. The odd mine was clearly visible in the sand so one was apprehensive when going backwards and forwards. The Butlins Holiday Camp was used by the Navy as a training establishment. Given the name HMS Arthur. The camp was full of Naval though we never seen any in the town. They must have kept them away. Perhaps the authorities in their infinite wisdom kept us apart. Many lectures on various aspects of service life. We had medical officer of the dangers of venereal diseases. This was my first introduction to sex education. For me it was a rude awakening. The MO marched on the stage in the lecture room and held up an unrolled French letter which he announced was a condom. In my ignorance I only knew it as the more familiar name. They were sold sureptisously in barber’s shops where male customers would be discreetly asked if they needed such things for the weekend. He ran to great length about syphilis, gonorrhoea, associated with women of a dubious character. If we did succumb to these wiles we’d be marching with a standing penis and no conscience. Returned to a room behind the guard room where prophylactic treatment was available. This lecture was reinforced by an American film of soldiers frequenting a brothel and the resulting liaison in full colour. Various venereal diseases in all its ghastly forms. Pretty shocking to my young senses. What kept most men on the straight and narrow was the exception that women were to be respected. The ultimate way was that the man would marry a virgin and young women accordingly kept themselves chaste. At home sex was never discussed. It was taboo. But nevertheless there were plenty of innuendoes bandied about between Babe, Benny and some of the lodgers. I was a little naive to appreciate what was going on. Films and books were played down as part of any stories so as not to offend the sensors. Songs adhered to a strict code of practice. Some comedians like Max Miller sailed pretty close to the wind. A popular song of the day was, “Doing What Comes Naturally.” And that was how people were introduced to sex. To suppress our sexual drive a cup of tea or cocoa we drank was laced with copious amounts of Bromide. Also we were kept so busy with square bashing and PT at the end of the day we were too exhausted for such dalliances. That coupled with our meagre pay did not leave us much for entertaining the opposite sex. As the course progressed so did our fitness. Jack London was training for his fight would delight in picking out likely lads to spar with him in the boxing ring. Fortunately, for me being I was slight build I was not selected for this ordeal. We could not avoid the forced marches that were his pet items. Be paraded in marching order with small pack. Gas mask we had to march at a fast pace for about ten miles or so. Periodically we’d be halted for a short rest but Jack would prance about shadow boxing while we looked on in awe. And off we’d go again at almost a gallop. After six weeks or so of this intensive square bashing we were deemed to be sufficiently proficient in parade ground techniques and arms drill, armed and unarmed bayonet, to be referred to the next place of our training. Come of some use in the overall strategy of the Air Force. And then off we went. Went to —
CB: Where did you go next?
PC: Went to a place called Brindley Heath near Birmingham. Just outside Birmingham. And we marched up to the camp known as Kit Bag Hill surrounded by an eight to ten foot high wire chain link. This was number school, number 6 School of Technical Training. It would be our home for the next five or six months. So that’s where I went.
CB: So, at the Technical School this was specifically was it for the trade you were put into?
PC: Yeah. Yeah. Number 6 School of Technical Training.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Very desolate. Looked rather gloomy after Skegness. I was accommodated in one of many of the wooden huts. In the centre was a coal burning stove. Iron beds that telescoped to give a spacious look to the room. On each bed was three square shaped mattresses called biscuits. Pillow. Three blankets all arranged in a precise manner which we would get accustomed to making before going on parade in the mornings. A corporal was in charge of the hut and the weekly inspections of the hut ensured was spotless before he allowed us to go to breakfast. Woe betide anyone who entered the hut after he’d pronounced it satisfactory. Not only were the trainees RAF personnel but there were the Fleet Air Arm, Polish and WAAFs which added a degree of rivalry to us all. Each morning we’d parade outside the hut at 7.30 am. Headed by the station band we would march to the workshop to the strains of, “Sussex by the Sea.” We would mutter as we marched along in the darkness, “Good old Sussex by the sea. You can tell them all we know sod all of Sussex by the sea.” How’s that? [laughs]
CB: We’ll pause there for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: So, the RAF called this site you’re talking about RAF Hednesford.
PC: Yeah.
CB: What did you actually do there?
PC: That was the —
CB: Brindley Heath.
PC: Yeah. First two weeks dealt with basic engineering practice. I did on occasion metal, metals used in aircraft production. Types of drills, screws, tools, heat treatment, corrosion. Main practical work involved filing a piece of mild steel about three or four inches square, a quarter of an inch thick. Dead flat and square. Both faces and all surfaces. At the end marks were attained in the practical theory and oral examination we continued with the course. Otherwise we were re-mustered into probably the RAF regiment. Perish the thought. Anyone with ninety percent could go on to the fitter’s course. Those with marks forty or less would be re-mustered. Only one of our entry was. Which was a hundred and fifty eight passed with high enough marks and one failed. And he had the, as he had had office experience in Civvy Street he was posted to the admin section as a Clerk GD. We were rather derisory towards him but he had the last laugh because by the time we had completed the course he had been promoted to corporal. So he did well. None of us were concerned about going on the fitter’s course which meant another ten weeks of training and many were anxious to join a squadron and actually service aircraft. Once the basic training was over we got down to the serious business of the flight mechanic’s course. Sixteen weeks of instruction, preliminary rigging, knots, lacing of wire and rope. Fabrication, application, doping and painting, carpentry, hydraulics, pneumatic, wheels and tyre maintenance, marshalling of aircraft. Procedures for the daily inspection. At first I’d been disappointed in not being successful in being selected as an engine mechanic but once on the course I found it so varied and covered such a variety of activities I was glad. Later in life it stood me in good stead. Once we were, similar routine with our spare time spent in the NAAFI. Occasional visits to the camp cinema. One film I recall was the story of that guy who sold his soul to the devil. Was it a warning? Also got initiated in playing cards. Not Whist, Rummy and Cribbage that I was reasonable in but Brag, Pontoon and Solo. We did not have a lot of money to indulge in these games and after being relieved of my meagre pay by the card sharks among us I became more cautious about getting too involved. The only game officially sanctioned by the powers that be was Tombola or Housey Housey. Less stressful and you were unlikely to lose too much of your money. Weekends we’d venture in to town with Walsall being one of the favourite places. Many thought I came from Canada. Due to my West Country accent no doubt. So I would say I came from London, Ontario. I was intrigued by the accents of these Black Country people as they were known here. Hednesford itself was a mining village. We’d often visit the snooker hall and local pub. The younger miners a little hostile to us as many would have liked to have joined the Services from what was a Reserved Occupation from which there was no escape. Hence their frustrations. Shall I go on?
CB: Yeah.
PC: My best friend, Bob Matthews, a Londoner and I was a bit in awe of him because he was very streetwise while I was just a country boy who knew nothing of the big wide world. As I lived in Poole it was much too far for me to go home on a forty eight hour pass and I stayed with him with his parents in London. Fabulous. They lived in Woolwich and his father was security officer at the Royal Arsenal. They had a small cottage inside the Arsenal as part of the job. You would say that this was the safest place in London. Bob had a regular girlfriend. Sylvia, I believe. And he introduced me to her sister Vera. This made a convenient foursome for us. Also, Vera was my first really serious girl. We used to write copious letters to each other even when I was posted overseas. However, when I was abroad for a long separation of course there was a cool off a bit and she met up with another lad. When I came home in 1947 we did try to get together but I was very unsettled and did not know what I wanted to do so we drifted apart. Compared with Poole, Woolwich and London in general was a wonderland to me [pause] Pubs such as Dirty Dick’s were so different from those in Poole. We would meet Bob’s mother in one and she would proudly show off her pride and joy to her friends. Christmas I spent at the camp not wishing to go home as I wanted to enjoy service life to the full. I withdrew my name from the list of those wishing to go home to allow the married ones a better chance of selection. Periodically we used to do guard duty. This involved being on duty from 6pm until 8am the next day. One did stints of two hours on and four hours off and we usually slept in the guard room cells. Some did duty on the main gate and others patrolled the perimeter fence. The shifts 12 to 2am and 2 to 4am were in my opinion the worst. I remember on one occasion falling asleep in the sentry box and nearly falling over as I slept. God knows what would have happened if the orderly officer had come around. Tell that the circulated camp was that Naval Fleet Air Arm types who assisted their mates to enter the camp after the magic hour of 23.59 by fixing their bayonets to the rifles. Pushing them through the chain link fence to form a sort of ladder. Coming up this way one of the bayonets snapped off. What was the outcome I never did know or whether it was true. Completion of the course in February ’43 we attended a passing our parade, informed of our postings, given a travel warrant and sent home on a weeks’ well-earned leave. We had previously been asked where we’d like to be posted and I opted for Ibsley near Ringwood. A Spitfire fighter station. Whether they did this deliberately to post you as far from the location desired I don’t know but I was posted to 1651 Heavy Conversion Unit, Waterbeach in Cambridgeshire.
CB: Right. We’ll stop this for a mo.
[recording paused]
CB: You mentioned the passing out parade from the end of your training. So how did that go?
PC: Well, the square bashing do you mean? After doing the foot drill.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Yeah. What did that involve?
CB: Yeah. When you’d finished your technical training you had your passing out parade.
PC: Technical training.
CB: Yeah. Before you were posted elsewhere. So what, what was the passing out parade?
PC: I can’t remember really. I think we just had to march past the CO and eyes right and off you go.
CB: Yes. And did they give you something in terms of certificate. Or —
PC: No. No.
CB: Families invited or anything like that?
PC: No. No. No. No.
CB: Right. And did you get a bean feast afterwards?
PC: A bean feast?
CB: A pub. Food.
PC: No. No. You were sent home on leave.
CB: Right. That was the reward [laughs]
PC: Yeah. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
PC: Yeah.
CB: Ok.
[recording paused]
CB: So when you joined the RAF you were an AC2. How did the promotion go from there?
PC: Well, the next stage was AC1. And then LAC. Leading Aircraftmen. I think nowadays they follow the Army and they call them corporals.
CB: Well, I think they’ve still got LAC and SAC.
PC: Yeah. Have they?
CB: Senior Aircraftsman. So at what stage were you, did you become a Leading Aircraftsman? At the end of your technical training was it?
PC: After I’d been on the Heavy Conversion Unit for a bit.
CB: When you got on with it. Right. Ok. So you were posted to the Heavy Conversion Unit. That was at Waterbeach. So, what was your role there?
PC: Just —
CB: Because you are now technically what’s your description of your trade at that stage?
PC: I’m a flight mechanic.
CB: Right.
PC: Flight mechanic air frame. Yeah. Arrived at the camp at about [pause] it was quite dark. Reported to the guard room. Soon allocated a billet. Guided to the dining for a much needed meal. Quite bewildered. At the same time thrilled to hear the roar of aircraft engines as the planes were taking off from the airfield.
CB: What were the aircraft?
PC: Stirlings.
CB: Right.
PC: The airfield was about four miles from Cambridge. Only built during the general rearmament programme of the late 1930s. Officially opened in 1941. Earmarked to be a heavy bomber station. When I arrived it was equipped with the Short Stirling four engine bomber. I was a little disappointed to find that the unit was not on operational one but involved with the final training of aircrews before going on to an operational squadron. Stirlings were given this role because the Lancaster and Halifax heavy bombers coming on stream were far superior in Bomber Command in bomb carrying capacity and ability to fly at high altitudes. Stirlings had been designed in 1936 but its projected wing span of a hundred and twelve feet had to be reduced to less than a hundred to be accommodated in the hangars. This would seriously affect its ability to fly any higher than about eighteen thousand feet and was therefore more vulnerable to anti-aircraft and fighter attack. Its robust construction based on the Sunderland ensured that it would withstand serious battle damage. It was used successfully as the main bomber along with the Wellington. But as night fighter operations improved these losses were unsustainable. Stirlings last big operational roles was when it was used as a paratroop carrier. And the towing of gliders during D-Day and at Arnhem. It was at Arnhem that my brother Jim was captured and spent the rest of the war in a prisoner of war camp. My first day on the flights when I was introduced to these huge monsters towering above me left me a little awestruck by its sheer size. This was certainly a big aeroplane standing about twenty feet high. Twenty eight feet high on its huge ungainly undercarriage. My job as a flight mechanic was to carry out daily inspections. Checking the tyres, tyre creep, leaks from the oleo struts, free working of the ailerons, rudders and elevators and inspect for damage generally. Checking the cockpit. The operational controls. The most frightening task for me was the cleaning of the cockpit windscreen and windows. This necessitated climbing out of an escape hatch midway along the fuselage, walking along to the cockpit and then lying down to clean the Perspex windows. At first I would crawl on my hands and knees up the fuselage much to the amusement of the old hands. After a few days I became as blasé about it as they were and would quickly clamber along the fuselage ignoring the height above the ground. Refuelling held its dangers too. The training of pilot and co-pilot to successfully take off and land at night and to get the rest of the crew to operate as an efficient unit. Night flying was the norm for this work and on its completion usually about two or three in the morning one of the jobs was to refuel the aircraft so that it was ready for immediate take off. The Stirling had fourteen tanks in the wings holding over two thousand two hundred gallons of fuel. On a cold winter’s night this was a gruelling task. To hold open the nozzle to allow the petrol to flow in to the tanks hands and fingers soon became numb with cold. Accentuated by the high octane fuel. I’d not been there long when my turn for night flying duties. This meant being, among other things being on standby on the flight hut to answer requests from the pilot for a supply of compressed air. In night flying operation the aircraft would be doing circuits and bumps continued throughout the night. The small engine driven pumps which fitted to the aircraft could not maintain enough compressed air in the [floor cylinder] to cope with the continual application of the aircraft air brakes. After a number of landings and take off a cylinder would need replenishing. My job was to meet the aircraft on the perimeter, top up as necessary. Rather than wait in the cold flight for a call out many of us would join the aircrews with a fully charged air cylinder and enjoy the thrills of night flying. Sans parachute I might add. When the top up cylinder was empty we would leave the aircraft. Turn to the flight and have to wait for the next call. At the end of the night flying the next task would be to meet the aircraft on the perimeter. Guide it to its dispersal point on the flight. On my first occasion the duty corporal took pity on me and told me he would delay my introduction to this task as long as possible. Whether he doubted my competence I know not. There was suddenly a flurry of activity and with the phone ringing continuously, airmen gathering up torches and disappearing into the night I found I was the only one apart from the corporal left in the hut. The phone rang and he reluctantly handed me two small torches and told me to guide G-George to its dispersal point with some brief warnings of the possible dangers. Out I ventured in the total darkness to meet this huge monster towering above me on the perimeter track. Along with my two torches waving them in the prescribed manner I gradually brought the aircraft with its roaring engines and red hot exhaust to its dispersal point. Now came the tricky bit where it was necessary to turn the aircraft in a complete circle on the frying pan to be ready for refuelling. One had to be careful to keep in full view of the pilot. Not to stumble or trip otherwise one might be run over by the tail wheels as the aircraft turned around in the tight space. With heart thumping and nerves frayed I managed this without a mishap. I’ve often wondered if the pilot ever thought how vulnerable the poor ground crews were when carrying out this type, this operation. Back in the flight hut I don’t know to this day who was more relieved. Me or the corporal. Periodically, as well as doing a guard duty on the main gate on the perimeter of the station we also had to do a kite guard. Kite being slang for an aeroplane. For this duty one would have a couple of blankets, go to a designated aircraft and spend a night guarding the aircraft. I cannot recall whether we were armed or not or how effective the guard was is debatable. Whenever I did this duty I would spend the time exploring the aircraft, playing the various roles of bomber crews. I imagined I would assume the duty of the pilot, co-pilot, flying over Germany and the North Sea to the target. When tiring of this I would then take on the role of the bomb aimer. Lie down in his position in the front at the front and guide the plane and drop the bombs. Other roles would be front, rear and mid-upper gunners. Sitting in their turrets and shooting down enemy fighters. Although I fantasised playing these roles I never felt I would be suitable as an aircraft member. Aircrew member. Partly as I did not consider my education, background good enough at the time. Aircrews were recruited from the universities and Grammar Schools and my basic elementary schooling was not good enough. As war progressed and a shortage of suitable candidates became apparent particularly for the flight engineers. I would probably have been acceptable. By this time I’d retrained as a fitter and was quite happy in that role. For sleeping there was a foldaway stretcher located in the fuselage but sleep was an uncomfortable experience, climbs in the aircraft on a cold winter’s night. And equally so on a hot summer’s night. At 6am in the morning loud banging on this aircraft would awaken one and you would stagger off to the dining hall for a cup of tea and an early breakfast. But the ordinary perk was the cooks were generally sympathetic and generous at that hour. I had not been at Waterbeach long when it came apparent getting around a camp site, a bicycle was required so I wrote home and asked my mother to send my bicycle to me. She did. Registered. And I was mobile. A cycle was as essential in those days as a car is today. Visits to Cambridge and the local villages was easily accomplished with the minimum of effort. This being the fen country it was very flat. Very few hills to negotiate. This part of the country was ideal for the location of bomber stations so that although heavy laden to take off safely. Cambridge was a beautiful city with its many fine buildings, colleges and the River Cam running through it and I spent much of my free time exploring its many features. Cambridge being a university with its teaming population of undergraduates I found it difficult in coming to terms with. I was brought up to the idea that one had to get out to work and earn a living as soon as possible. My mother did not encourage one in the value of education. In fact, by her intransigence she discouraged me from taking the entrance to the local Grammar School. At the time, 1943 Cambridge was full of American servicemen and I’m afraid us poor erks could not compete either financially for the favours of the local girls. We had to be content with the NAAFI, Toc H, Sally Ann, for entertainment. Plus the cinemas. I remember there was some trouble when some time expired servicemen returned from their tour of duty in North Africa and many confrontations occurred between the two factions. I found it more expedient to stick to the village and Waterbeach itself than get involved in any trouble. My father died in November ’43. Flight Sergeant Mills took me under his wing and helped me through the trauma and he often took me to the British Legion club in the village where he was a much respected and popular friend. As spring arrived the hours of daylight increased. The trainee aircrews were required to wear goggles with dark lenses in order that flying hours were maintained. The runways were illuminated with sodium lights to complete the illusion of night flying. This almost around the clock flying put quite a strain on the servicing ground crews. But with the increasing aircraft production losses of aircrews by enemy action it was necessary to maintain a flow. One day while working on the flights [unclear] came and said anyone would like to retrain as a fitter 2. This was an upgraded group 1 in trade structure in the RAF was highly regarded as it opened up the route to promotion. I asked when mine would be likely to be selected, know if to be selected and how that might be. He told me it would be several months before it would come about. Thinking to myself it would get me off the flights for the winter months I put my name forward. Rather than months, a couple of weeks later given a weeks’ leave and told to report to Number 1 School Of Technical Training at Halton to begin a fitter’s conversion course [pause] on the 2nd of July 1943. Number 1 School of Technical Training, RAF Station Halton. Halton was the home of the boy entrants in the RAF and affectionately known as Trenchard’s Brats. The terms of service was to fulfil twelve years of service from the age of eighteen when the option to sign on for a period if they so desired. The apprenticeship was four to five years duration and they seemed to be the cream of the tradesmen and indeed they were. The war was a Godsend to that force with the rapid expansion of the Air Force. Many were promoted to high ranking position both as officers and senior NCOs. So they did well. Volunteers and conscripts like myself after completing a flight mechanic’s course the period on the squadron required to do a conversion course of fourteen weeks to be brought up to the required standard. I think I was the youngest and certainly the lowest in rank at AC2, Aircraftman Second Class. Many were LACs, Leading Aircraftsmen with several years service to their credit. RAF Halton near Wendover in Buckinghamshire was situated uphill from the town. Every day we would form up on the square, march to the training workshops. The Brats would lead the parade with the mascot of a goat, a goat and the station band at the head. The Brats were distinguished by wearing cheese cutters. Peak cap, with a chequered brim on the edge whilst we wore the Glengarry type of head gear. One of our entry also wore a cheese cutter as he had had the devil’s own job to convince the RAF police that he was not a Brat. One night on the town he had been an aircrew member and lost all his hair as result of some trauma and had permission to wear the cap to avoid embarrassment. The course, like the flight mechanic’s was fairly intensive dealing with basic engineering, metal repairs, hydraulics, minor and major inspections. A lot of instruction involved American aircraft such as the Kitty Hawk, Tomahawk and the methods used in the servicing of these aircraft. Weekends we could not obtain a pass we were expected to take part in some sporting activity. The skivers among us would often choose the cross country run over the hills and through the woods down to Tring. At some convenient spot we would hide, enjoy a crafty smoke and wait for the main pack and rejoin them for the return to the camp. Those who declined to take part in any of these activities would find themselves detailed for spud bashing which involved the peeling and removing the eyes from the potatoes. Halton was conveniently placed near London. And weekends we could spend in the city. We used to stay in the YMCA hospital, hostel at Westminster. Therefore we’d be taken by bus to a section of the underground not used by the railway. Here three tiered bunks were provided at a shilling. 5p per night. You took pot luck as to who your fellow borders might be and hoped they would not be too drunk or awkward. Other times when I stayed in camp I would explore the local towns of Aylesbury, Rickmansworth, Tring etcetera. During wartime these were pretty boring places to be for a serviceman as with beer in short supply unless you were a regular you could not hope to get served in any pub. Whilst at Halton the forty third intake of Brats came to the end of their course. We were all given a forty eight pass and told to leave the camp or stay at our peril. When we returned to the camp we’d seen why we had been told to get out. The place was in a shambles. Beds and mattresses hanging from windows, forty free entry signs daubed on walls and general mayhem everywhere. Apparently it was a tradition that on the completion of a course the Brats were given a free hand to celebrate their final days at Halton. The new entry would have the job of cleaning up the ensuing mess. Which gave them the incentive that they could do better when they completed their course. However, when we finished the privilege [pause] however when we finished the privilege was not granted to us. I completed the conversion course and now fitter 2A still with the rank of AC2. This gave me an increase in pay and I was now in group one of the trade hierarchy of the Air Force. Sent home and then posted back to 1651 at Waterbeach.
Other: A rest.
CB: I think we’d better stop there. Thank you very much.
[recording paused]
CB: We’re taking a pause now because Bob’s getting a bit tired. We’ve got to the stage where he’s returned to Stradishall and there’s a lot more to be covered in the later part of the war and afterwards in the Far East. So we’re going to reconvene. Much of what he’s been speaking about he’s got directly from his own book, “Stirlings, Sentinels and Dakotas.” So, more later.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Percival Robert Court,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 9, 2021,

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