Interview with Robert Norman William Didwell. Two


Interview with Robert Norman William Didwell. Two


Robert joined the RAF at the end of 1938 when he was 18. He flew with 99 Squadron, spending three and a half years overseas. Robert recalls how his older brother was a regular soldier before the war in the 1920s, and his mother was a kitchen maid. From August 1939 to February 1941, he acted as a first mate and oversaw all the fuel that came into his station and got to know all the air crew. He describes how on the 14th December 1939 there was an order for nine aircraft to attack German shipping across the North Sea. He states that they struggled with the weather and how five aircraft were shot down and one badly damaged, and 30 men lost their lives. He was a fitter airframe and in charge of the hydraulics, wheels, tyres and breaks through daily routine checks. He describes how he could not be an army medic due to his bad left eye not being up to standard. He eventually achieved the rank of lance corporal. After his early time on the squadron at RAF Newmarket, he went on an engineering course and was then posted at RAF Boscombe Down. He was also stationed overseas in Egypt and the Persian Gulf. He describes how many soldiers died of heat exhaustion while stationed there.




Temporal Coverage





00:42:37 audio recording


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ADidwellRNW160719-AV, PDidwellRNW1601


CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is the 19th of July 2012 and I’m in Leighton Buzzard with Robert Norman William Didwell, known as Young Did and we are going to talk about his experiences as a man on the ground keeping those valiant people flying. So what is your first recollection of life with the family, Norman?
RD: With the family?
CB: Yeah.
RD: Oh, we were a happy little family.
CB: Right.
RD: I had an older brother who was older than me. He was a regular soldier before the war.
CB: Right.
RD: And I had a happy childhood. I was well fed which a lot of them in the 1920s were not. I know a lot of people were starving but I was very lucky. My mother was a, started off as a kitchen maid in with Sir Henry and Lady Campbell-Bannerman who was the Prime Minister of England for the Liberal, the old Liberal party. They had a big castle at, just outside of Meigle and they had a big town house at 137 Cromwell Road. And next door to that building in Cromwell Road was 139 and who do you know lived there?
CB: Your dad?
RD: Lady Scott.
CB: Right.
RD: You know of Scott of the Antarctic but she married Sir Arthur Kennet who was a Liberal MP. So at the time of when Scott as you know, the great nationalist and a lieutenant commander in the Royal Navy, got the Distinguished Service Cross. He was about twelve when I was in my first three or four years growing up. So we go back a long way don’t we? And as I say I left school, got a job with the local grocers as errand boy and then I went in the Post Office as a telegram boy. Then I decided to join the Air Force [laughs] and then you’ve got it. I joined up at the end of ’38 and there you are.
CB: Ok. So where did you join the RAF?
RD: Where did I join?
CB: Yes
RD: Well, we used to, to join up you went to Kingsbury which was the Air Ministry. Then you went to either Uxbridge or Halton. If you were clever enough and you could join when you were fifteen at Halton as a boy apprentice and you did three years at Halton. Did you know that? Did you know?
CB: Yeah.
RD: Yeah. And most of the entries at Halton were very clever blokes. And some of them rose right up the top. If you go to Halton camp there’s photographs of those who started as boy entrants, boy apprentices and went right up the top of the ladder. Air rank.
CB: So the top six in any pass out went to Cranwell —
RD: Yeah.
CB: Right.
RD: ’32 and ’31 entry were two very good entries. They went, did both trades. Engine and air frame.
CB: Which one were you in?
RD: Hmmn?
CB: Which one were you in?
RD: I wasn’t. I never went to Halton.
CB: Where did you go?
RD: I did my training at Uxbridge. [unclear] training. You all did if you joined straight in at the age of eighteen or seventeen. Then you do a [slow] course. Now, the technical bit you do it at Henlow which was an old RAF station. It’s only down the road from here isn’t it? Henlow.
CB: Absolutely. Yeah.
RD: You get a few weeks at Henlow telling you the theory of flight. What an aircraft does etcetera etcetera and then from then on you go on. Then after I’d been, when the war broke out the second or the third day we moved from Mildenhall on the 2nd of August 1939 to Rowley Mile Heath and Rowley Mile Racecourse and took over the Rowley Mile Stadium where we all slept and eat and everything else and so we were in it from the start. Right. Now, we hadn’t been there three or four days and [Sticky Blue] said, ‘Any of you blokes have a driving licence?’ Well, fortunately, I had passed the driving test because my dad had an old twelve point horsepower Citroen. I’d passed in 1938 and got a driving licence and he said, I’d only been there a couple of days at Newmarket and he said, ‘Anybody here got a driving licence?’ So there was Dick Pike, who come from Leighton Buzzard and myself. He said, ‘Right.’ He said [laughs] ‘Flight Lieutenant Stanley is going over to Mildenhall. He’ll pick you up from the flight,’ he said, ‘And you’ve got to sign, do a test on a tractor.’ [laughs] Four tonne tractor.
[telephone ringtone]
[recording paused]
CB: Keen to join a squadron. So —
RD: Well —
CB: Just as a matter of —
RD: After I passed out —
CB: Yeah.
RD: You see.
CB: Flying marks for each.
RD: And you had a small course then of technical stuff but you were called a fitter’s mate.
CB: Ok.
RD: You [ran] the tools to the town and you did all the cleaning.
CB: Right.
RD: But you did learn what an aircraft was all about and how it flew and all the rest of it. So after that then for, from then, from May, from August 1939 ‘til February 1941 I was more or less a fitter’s mate and also in charge of all the petrol that came in to the Rowley Mile and one of the two drivers that drove the bowsers. And so it was interesting because I got to know all the crews. I got to know all the aircrew and everything. But you must remember this. From pre-war days, the outbreak of war ‘til February 1941 you know who the air gunners were don’t you?
CB: Army.
RD: Ground crew.
CB: Ground crew.
RD: Ground crew. You got extra sixpence a day if you passed a gunnery course. Wireless operators, yes they were automatically made, had to do the gunnery course but until they’d done that gunnery course which was to do a fortnight’s what they called summer training they didn’t get paid their sixpence a day extra for aircrew. Now, on the 14th of December 1939 it was a very frosty morning. At about 11 o’clock the sun came out and it was beautiful daylight and there came an order for nine aircraft to attack German shipping in the Schillig Roads of Heligoland. Well, they took off but when they got out over the coast and got over the North Sea the weather started deteriorating and they were down to six hundred feet when they got over the Schillig Roads. And then all hell broke loose. Fighters came up. Luftwaffe. There was two cruisers. I forget how many [unclear] there was a force of German about eight. So five aircraft were shot down over the Schillig Roads. Right. One of them was badly damaged. Anyway, the five that were shot down of the thirty airmen on board that were no known grave. Flight Lieutenant Hetherington, who was a New Zealander his aircraft was badly damaged and they didn’t see in the dark what the damage was and they lost a lot of fuel. But when he put his flaps down to come in on the circuit to land the starboard flap had been shot away. Bonk. That’s when you then got the posters in every Bomber Command station, “Check your flaps.” At least no less than two thousand feet so that to make sure there’s no damage to your flaps to land. So there was, and they’re all on there. I can name them now. I can remember them as well as if it was yesterday. Thirty of those men up there have got no known grave.
CB: This is the picture on the wall.
RD: Yeah.
CB: Of the squadron.
RD: Yeah.
CB: 99.
RD: Yeah.
CB: Right.
RD: Yeah.
CB: So what were they flying? They were all flying Wellingtons?
RD: The first Wellington squadron.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Flew them longer than any other Wellington squadron. Air Chief Marshall, Air Vice Marshall Baldwin who was [unclear] by my man himself long before Harris. Knew more about bombing than Harris did too. I can tell you that now and he was asked to take command of Bomber Command in the Far East and he said, ‘I’m taking 99 Squadron with me.’ They had already done, the first squadron to do a thousand sorties before they went to India and they did a thousand sorties in the Far East. And that’s what they ended up flying in the Far East was the B24. Consolidated bomber. On that picture up there. And that is signed. That big signature —
CB: That’s the Liberator.
RD: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RD: That big signature is Lucien Ercolani’s signature. Do you know who he was? Lucien, Lucien Ercolani was Ercol furniture. And of course, that aerodrome, I forgot the name of the aerodrome near high Wycombe he learned to fly as a young fellow before he ever got called up. But they, him and his brother both volunteered for the Air Force when war broke out. and of course, he had already got about a hundred odd hours in aircraft flying so immediately he was banged on to twin engines and what have you. And he was awarded the DSO as a pilot officer. Yeah.
CB: What was he awarded that for?
RD: And he got two DSOs by the end of the war and the Distinguished Flying Cross. That was flying Wimpies.
CB: Right.
RD: Yeah. And he was a great old bloke was old Lucien. We were very friendly him and I. He was president of our 99 Squadron Association after [pause] after Titch Walker. The famous Air Chief Marshall Walker. Titch Walker. After he died he took over as president and when his daughter wanted him to go and live with her near, up in Lincolnshire and he said he’d looked at this house, this residential housing so I was sitting there playing Bridge all bloody day I’ll go into a residential home because his wife died and he had a very nice home in one of the villages there and so he went into a residential home at High Wycombe. And I used to go and see him and when we used to have the two meetings a year for 99 Squadron Association I always used to go over and pick him up and that.
CB: So in this time you’re an air frames man.
RD: Yeah.
CB: And how was —
RD: I became an air frame, air frame fitter.
CB: Fitter. Right.
RD: Yeah.
CB: So what did you do as an air frame fitter?
RD: You were responsible for all the whole of the air frame and the hydraulics. The flying controls, wheels, tyres, brakes.
CB: And in being responsible for it what were you doing?
RD: Just signed the 4700 when you’d done your daily routine check. You made sure there had been no damage from the night before and you’d done it a hundred percent plus because you had got mates flying in those aircraft. In my period of the first, as I say from 1939 to early ’41 they were your mates. You all slept in the same, until they made them sergeant. Sergeant air gunners and sergeant wireless operators because then the four engine jobs came in and where our boys just got their trade pay and sixpence on top for air gunners they had, these chaps came in for a twelve week gun course, made sergeant and got eight shillings a day. But some of them wished they hadn’t.
CB: Because? Why did they wish they hadn’t?
RD: Because I’ll tell you what. Some of them really were shattered by it when they used to see their mates going down in flames of a night.
CB: This is in the early part of the war.
RD: I put in for, I put in for gunnery so I had to take the aircrew medical but I’ve got a wonky left eye. It wasn’t, it wasn’t up to standard of what they wanted. Now, funny enough my brother was the same. He had a wonky left eye but he shot, he shot at Bisley for his regiment the Kings Own Rifle Corps.
CB: Right.
RD: We both shot from our left shoulder because the right eye was good.
CB: It was ok.
RD: Yeah.
CB: So going back to being air frame fitter you are checking all the —
RD: Yeah.
CB: Items.
RD: Yeah.
CB: And —
RD: You’re responsible for all of the air frame and the hydraulics etcetera etcetera.
CB: What rank are you there?
RD: Eh?
CB: What rank were you there?
RD: Well, I started off as an AC2.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Aircraftsman second class.
CB: Ok.
RD: Then I got promoted to AC1. And then eventually I got promoted to leading aircraftman which is equivalent to a corporal.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Then I went on another course when I came back from overseas —
CB: Yeah.
RD: To advance to Group 1. And so I was then on the top pay for that particular trade.
CB: So what rank were you there?
RD: I was, I passed out as AC1 on the fitter course at St Athans after the war and eventually I got promoted to what was more or less lance corporal. LAC. But I spent, we had [pause] I was at RAF Oakington.
CB: Yeah.
RD: In the early ‘40s. Well, late ‘40s, ’46, ’47 time and we had an attachment at Gatow near Berlin and as you know Berlin was, came under the Russians as you know. The whole lot. The whole zone. They had the whole city but the Americans had [Tegel]
CB: After the war you mean.
RD: Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RD: The Americans had Tempelhof. The French had Tegel. The Americans, no the Americans had Tempelhof, the French had Tegel, the Russians had the whole of Berlin and we British we had Gatow which was in Charlottenburg. So actually I had a very interesting twelve years. Spent time in the western desert.
CB: So this was —
RD: Spent time in Iraq. Time in Saudi Arabia.
CB: Fantastic.
RD: On the Persian Gulf.
CB: Let’s just get the sequence clearer then. So after your early time on the squadron which was the Air Force station was called Newmarket wasn’t it?
RD: Yeah.
CB: And then where did you go from there?
RD: I went on the course.
CB: Yeah. Which one?
RD: That was a course at Morecambe.
CB: Right.
RD: They’d got it a Air Force station up there.
CB: Yeah.
RD: It was for training flight riggers and engine fitters.
CB: Right.
RD: But it was a very brief course for us because we had already spent time as fitter’s mates. So we came back then and I got posted to funnily enough, amazing I got posted to experiments at [pause] oh dear, oh dear. It begins with a B doesn’t it?
Other: Boscombe Down.
RD: No. No. Down in [pause] you’ve got three. Three Air Force. They’re all in a line in in the West Country. It begins with a B. There’s a haven. There’s an Upavon. What’s the other one? Netheravon, Upavon.
CB: There are lots around there aren’t there so —
RD: Boscombe Down.
CB: Boscombe Down.
RD: I Went to Boscombe Down.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Yeah. And I was on a night fighter, experimental night fighter unit.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Which we had a Hurricane, a Spitfire and a early Mosquito.
CB: Right.
RD: And they were carrying out night fighting. All sorts of gadgets trying to muffle the exhaust flames you know.
CB: Oh, yeah.
RD: And different plans they tried and we had Squadron Leader Bragg and another flight lieutenant. I forget his name. And when there was air raids on Plymouth and Bristol and these places we used to have to turn out and off they went to see if they could shoot a few old Germans down. I believe Bragg did cop two. I believe he shot two. I don’t know what, I heard he got killed later in the war. Yeah.
CB: So the day fighters had a bit of a struggle in the night.
RD: Hmmn?
CB: The day fighters struggled in the night.
RD: Yeah.
CB: So the ones doing the shooting down were —
RD: They tried all sorts of gadgets with them.
CB: Right.
RD: Yeah. Yeah, but I wasn’t there long because we had a sticky night one night and it rained like hell and, I think it was a young flight lieutenant was coming in and we brought him in with our torches and he got in a patch there and it was stuck right up to the blooming axels on the undercarriage wheel. So we dig him out. So we dug him out and we missed our tea. What they called our supper really.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Actually. So we tried to get something cooked in the cookhouse. There was a sandwich and the station warrant officer walked in. Played hell with us. Played hell with us. ‘Look at the state of it.’ I said, ‘We’ve just dug out an aircraft out of the mud.’ We carried on alarming. It wasn’t long after I was posted overseas.
CB: So —
RD: I heard, I heard this bloody station warrant officer because most of them were ex-Brigade of Guards you know and a lot of them were Irish and they weren’t technical men. It was only later when the fitters became flight engineers when they finished their tour or two tours they became station warrant officers. That was a different set up altogether.
CB: So the original station warrant officer wasn’t necessarily an engineer was he?
RD: Oh no. Oh, they were [unclear]
CB: Yeah.
RD: Oh God, they were Guards.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Most of them were Irish and they didn’t like the English. Believe me. I tell you what. At one time you could shout out, ‘Paddy,’ and half the squadron turned around. Shout out, ‘Jock,’ the other half turned around.
CB: Not a lot of space for you.
RD: He’s going to sleep there [laughs] He’s so bored.
Other: No. I’m watching this.
CB: He’s watching. He’s watching a video.
RD: You’re not —
CB: No. [laughs] So —
Other: You’re featuring.
CB: When you finished at, well at Boscombe Down what were you doing there specifically?
RD: Well, looking after the air frame on a Hurricane.
CB: Right. To be sure that everything worked.
RD: Spit and the early Mosquito.
CB: Right.
RD: In fact, when we went, I went overseas and they turned Ferry Control, I went to Ferry Control and then it turned into Transport Command and it was when I was on attachment from Cairo, well from Transport Command, 216 Transport Command Group which headquarters was at Heliopolis just outside of Cairo. We used to go and do attachments all over. Landing strips all the way through to India. So you worked on practically every make of military aircraft there was including the Cairo to Karachi Flying Boat once a week.
CB: Oh right.
RD: When we was at Sharjah. Yeah, because that used to land in Sharjah Creek. Which was Dubai
CB: Yeah.
RD: Dubai. And then, it’s now Dubai it was a mud village when I was there. When we were there. Yeah. It was an interesting six years. It was an education the war actually.
CB: Yeah.
RD: It was an education. Yeah.
CB: So when you had finished at Boscombe Down when did you move and where did you go?
RD: I went, I went up to Padgate.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And the next thing I’m on the boat convoy out to the east.
CB: Yeah. And where did you go?
RD: Well, we left Liverpool.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Convoy. Went halfway around the Atlantic I think and landed up in Suez.
CB: Right.
[recording paused]
RD: Kilo-40.
CB: Right.
RD: No. Bilbeis. Bilbeis, I went. And that was on the Canal Zone.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And then I went up to the Western Desert to Kilo-40. And Kilo 40 then we were sent to, some of us, five of us went to Sharjah on the Persian Gulf. Then we went up to Habbaniya and we were there for a couple of months and then we went back up to the Far East.
CB: So when you were at Kilo-40 what, what aircraft were at that?
RD: The other, we had the Transport Command Conversion Unit.
CB: Right.
RD: We had a couple of Dakotas.
CB: Yeah.
RD: We had a couple of Liberators. We had a couple of Hudsons. Lockheed Hudsons. We had [pause] what was the other one we had? A Yankee. We had a Baltimore. Yeah. It was Conversion Unit from single engine people to twins and four engines.
CB: Right.
RD: Because this was before we landed in North Africa. Right.
CB: Yeah.
RD: So they were training these people.
CB: Before Operation Torch. Yeah.
RD: So as they converted to twin or four so that we could have a good bash at Mussolini and his lot from North Africa.
CB: So which aircraft were you dealing with or did you deal with —
RD: Every type. That’s the great thing about being in Ferry Control and Transport Command.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Every military aircraft that was built that went to the Far East came through the staging posts on that route.
CB: Yeah.
RD: So people who started off in Cornwall, at St Ives.
CB: Yeah.
RD: They, every build of typical military aircraft were be serviced by us blokes.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And they were, they sent them up. They used to be sent off at night when it was dark and the first stop on the staging posts was Gibraltar. Then that night they’d take off from there and dodge the old Luftwaffe to land anywhere they could near the western desert that we were still holding.
CB: Yeah.
RD: But then all the way right through Iraq. Right through Saudi Arabia, Karachi and then right into the Far East.
CB: So here you are in the desert. Were you, are you in a tent or what are you living in?
RD: We was in a tent.
CB: Ok. How many in the tent?
RD: Four in a tent.
CB: Ok.
RD: Sometimes six. And what we used to do they was what they called the UPI tents. You could just about stand up in them. What we used to do we used to put it, put it and then we used to dig a hole about three or four feet deep. Right. Put our kit bags and stuff up alongside so it don’t fall. So we could stand up in it practically.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Because when you were working on aircraft in the heat of the day and you can imagine what it was like when you got in the tent at night —
CB: Yeah.
RD: Or when you packed up your duties, finished work you hung your shirt on the old tentpole and it was solid with salt. We used to have to drink a pint of salt water every morning before breakfast and we used to have a pint at lunchtime and then late at night because the heat you lose all your salt. And then that of course turns. Can be very serious and some people who weren’t very strong they died of heat exhaustion you know.
CB: Did they?
RD: Oh God, yeah. There was quite a lot of troops and military died of heat exhaustion.
CB: What was the, was that because they weren’t covered up? Didn’t have enough water? Or what?
RD: Yeah. They just weren’t up to medically they weren’t fit enough to stand that kind of heat. I mean, I’m talking about you’ve got it here today, you’ve got thirty, haven’t you?
CB: Yeah.
RD: Can you imagine what it’s like at thirty eight degrees? And that’s what it was on the Persian Gulf. We could look from Sharjah village, we could look across and see the coastline of Iran.
CB: Right.
RD: It’s just twelve miles.
CB: Is it?
RD: And Dubai where we, we Sharjah was about ten miles from Dubai. We used to go and service the Flying Boats when they came in there. Especially the main one that used to run every day from, once a week from Cairo to Karachi. Right. So, you know, it was when you see Dubai today.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And the [unclear] family what they own.
CB: Yes.
RD: You want to see their place in Newmarket. Or just outside Newmarket. On the road into, on the whatsit road out of Newmarket. You want to see it. With the gold painted drapes and all their, yeah.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And by the way strict Muslims. You want to see them with the, yeah the models. Yes. Yes. You should. We’ve got a monument at Newmarket just outside the entrance to the members and owner’s entrance to Rowley Mile, right and you’d be surprised what the owners have got there. Little special places and that. What they call their [pause] what do you call it? Their, like a, it’s a big room with a bar and everything. You’d be surprised at the booze and the [unclear] family because one of the caretakers I knew when I was visiting. I always used to say if I was going to Newmarket I was going to look at our Memorial there at Newmarket and you’d be surprised the booze in there. And some of the young ladies of the town, you know. Oh yes. This business of Muslim you know. Yeah. Treacherous as hell. Have you had any —
CB: So —
RD: Have you had any news from Arabia that they’ve had these terrorists playing hell?
CB: Yeah.
RD: No.
CB: No.
RD: They haven’t. No. So who’s bloody well financing them through their arms then?
CB: Yeah.
RD: Got it?
CB: So you went from Sharjah to Karachi. Did you go on to Karachi?
RD: No. No. No.
CB: You didn’t. You stayed in —
RD: We, these, these places was you started off from, the aircraft used to fly from St Ives, Cornwall.
CB: Yeah.
RD: All types.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Going to the Far East.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And there were staging posts right the way through the route. I mean it wasn’t a day when you could take off a day and fly five thousand miles without stopping?
CB: They had regular stopping points.
RD: Yeah. I mean the Wellington only held four hundred, err seven hundred and fifty gallons of fuel.
CB: Right.
RD: Right. But that only gave them about nine hours flying at the most and they weren’t flying at five hundred miles an hour like these modern day jets. So they’d got to land somewhere to refuel. So that’s why they set up these staging posts.
CB: How long, how long were you out there? So you also went to —
RD: Altogether I was —
CB: Habbaniya .
RD: I was, I was over three years I was overseas.
CB: Ok.
RD: But you listen to this. Do you know if you served in India you did five years in India?
CB: Did you?
RD: Yeah. And shall I tell you something? You might not have known about this but do you know there was a mutiny in the RAF at the end of the war in India? No? A lot of people don’t.
CB: So what caused that?
RD: Wait a minute. Six of those leaders went to prison.
CB: Did they?
RD: Yes. They got eighteen months hard labour.
CB: What were they reacting to?
RD: Well, they’d been and done their five years. The war broke out but they didn’t bring them home. Not the ground crew.
CB: Right.
RD: And they had to do another five years ‘til it was all over. No. A lot of people don’t know about this do they?
CB: Right.
RD: No. That was all hushed up. No. As a friend of mine called [Ted Fowkes] who was ground crew with me and a I knew him for a few years we always seemed to end up at the same place. He said to me not long before he died, he said, ‘You know, Norm,’ he said, ‘The whole bloody lot of us in the military, officers, the lot we should have formed our own political party.’
CB: After the war.
RD: Yeah. He said, ‘And this country wouldn’t be in the state it is now.’
CB: Can I just take you back to the desert? So what was it like? You’re in a tent. What’s the temperature?
RD: All depends what part. If you’re in Egypt and Iraq.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Saudi Arabia was the worst. Sharjah was the worst.
CB: Right.
RD: Now, the landing strip at Sharjah is now the main road in Dubai.
CB: Right.
RD: Now, Lieutenant Colonel Hutchinson was a political officer from the Indian government where he’d served in the Indian Army but he was a Sandhurst trained man.
CB: Right.
RD: Fought in the Boer War. Was a DSO and a military medal and he used to come and have a chat with us when he used to visit Sharjah because he had to, you know pay them the, he used to come with his accountants and pay box —
CB: Yeah.
RD: From India because they paid were paid in rupees.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And he was sitting there one night on an empty four gallon [unclear] and chiefy, Flight Sergeant Benson said, ‘What’s going to happen now we’re again in North Africa?’ So he said, ‘Well, under here,’ he said, ‘Is a lot of wealth.’ He said, ‘And when the oil concession runs out in the early ‘50s they will take it over.’ He said, ‘And believe you me flight sergeant,’ he said, ‘They will make a fucking,’ that was the word, ‘A fucking hell of a life for the white people and the Christians.’ Now, that was his words. I can say because we looked aghast, you know.
CB: Yeah, I bet.
RD: When he said it.
CB: Can I just get an idea of what a standard day was like? So starting off when you’re in North Africa because of the heat what time did you get up and do your work?
RD: Well, you wanted to get up, you’d got to be up at 6 o’clock.
CB: Right.
RD: And it was reasonably cool then to get the engine started, to get the crew in but it was in the afternoon when the poor buggers were landing in the heat of the day they’d flown probably eighteen hundred miles, fifteen hundred miles between the two, the staging posts. They were, they were ringing wet. Ringing wet. They used to get out and we had water [unclear] . They used to, the Arabs were paid to bring water from wells. What they called these water [unclear]
CB: Yeah.
RD: They were a porous great big, a great big bowl on legs and it was porous so the cool breeze if you’d got a breeze kept the water cool.
CB: Right.
RD: At first you had to pump [laughs] then they’d pour it over themselves. And we used to get burned too with metal aircraft very often.
CB: On the plane?
RD: Yeah. When we were doing our interior. To fill up, to fill up the petrol.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Especially at Sharjah where we hadn’t got the facilities we only had the four hundred and fifty gallon bowsers we used to have old blankets. They issued old blankets so as when we were standing there on the main plane filling up it didn’t burn us through our feet. Especially on the metal aircraft
CB: Yeah. Yeah.
RD: So it was an education.
CB: I bet. So you you’d start at six. Then what time would you give up doing the work in the day?
RD: Well, by the time we got the aircraft off —
CB: Yeah.
RD: Tidied up everything, refuelled, we used to get Arab labour at Sharjah.
CB: Right.
RD: Four gallon petrol cans that had been brought down by a steam, a post from Basra. A Dutch ship it was actually, a tramp steamer. They used to bring the four gallon tank. That was unloaded into those, brought to the shore and then it was all donkey carried up to the base and we had sacks of these four gallon tanks of petrol, of aviation fuel and so it was, it was blooming hard work all the time. It was when you’d got the bowser pumping, you were standing on the main plane in the heat.
CB: Yeah. With a funnel.
RD: Yeah.
CB: With a funnel.
RD: With a funnel, yeah. With a chamois leather and a —
CB: So how much spillage would there be when you were trying to pour these?
RD: Quite a lot. Quite a lot. Quite a lot.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Yeah.
CB: It was hot.
RD: You’d got to be very careful when you were refuelling aircraft.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Very careful.
CB: Could you get spontaneous combustion from the surface of the plane? Off the petrol.
RD: Well, I’d never seen it happen and I never heard of it happening but my golly when one pranged it went up very quickly. I’ve seen some bad crashes. Seen some bad crashes.
CB: And these are the old cans.
RD: And when you get in, get in these wrecks.
CB: Yeah.
RD: See the state of the person who’s been killed or the one who is seriously injured.
CB: Right.
RD: You never forget it.
CB: No.
RD: You don’t.
CB: So did you, was this on the airfield or because you went out to crash recovery?
RD: Well, it, it happened very often on take-off or landing.
CB: Right.
RD: You see we had that night on December the 14th 1939, on the Thursday night when they were just coming in at about half past four or five o’clock time. It was dead. Really black. I mean it was December and I was filling up one of the bowsers as we’d been there about a month when they brought in a twenty thousand gallon tank. Put us in a proper supply because before that two of us were driving backwards and forwards getting filled up from Mildenhall dump. At Rowley Mile there was no such thing was there? So they had to put a twenty thousand gallon big tank above ground.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And it was camouflaged paint and I was filling up and it was just dark and they’d got their landing light, not their landing lights but their navigation lights were on and as they got down on the ground then there was no such thing as electric lights and that. A flare path was was nothing else but paraffin. What they called beehive.
CB: Yeah.
RD: Soaked in paraffin.
CB: Yeah.
RD: And there was an airman looked after two. Started off at one end for the first seventy five yards and it was a hundred yards, a hundred yards, a hundred yards. So you got seven blokes looking after the flare. That’s ground crew blokes and you got the team at the front and sometimes they used their landing lights because in the starboard wing of the Wimpy there were two lights that came down like car lights, you know. And it was very dangerous on the flare path because I’ll tell you for why. Sometimes if there was a cross wind you’d got to duck a bit quick or you’d get your head chopped off with the low flying aircraft I’ll tell you.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Robert Norman William Didwell. Two,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed September 24, 2023,

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