War changes everything



War changes everything
Arthur Alexander Gill's memoir


Biography of Arthur Alexander Gill and memories of his cousin Kenneth Gill. Writes of working in the same firm as Kenneth Gill before the war. Too young to join forces, he was employed in Blackburn aircraft stores. Was called up in December 1944. Writes of his army training and being home on leave in Leeds. Then provides outline of his cousin Kenneth Gill's service in the RAF including training in the United States and Canada, operations on 9 Squadron and then 617 Squadron. Mentions Ken's marriage to Vera and birth of son Derek. Mentions Ken taking part in Tirpitz operation and finally that Ken's luck ran out 21 March 1945 on a daylight raid over Bremen when aircraft was hit by anti-aircraft fire with bomb still on board and all crew were killed. Then continues with his own service history after VE day when he served in Burma, Hong Kong, Shanghai before returning to England in October 1947.




Six page printed document


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War changes everything

At the of age fifteen in 1938, I went to work in the drawing offices of the Leeds Fireclay Company. They were sited on Torre Road in Leeds and I found myself sitting alongside my cousin and great friend Kenneth Gill. He was aged seventeen, which at the time did not seem to be that significant, that is, except to Ken, of course, who would always remind me I was younger. Soon after the start of the war in 1939 the company had to close with many of the staff joining the services including my cousin, who fulfilled and ambition by joining the Royal Airforce.

Here my age did become significant. I was too young to join the forces but, after a visit to the Labour Exchange, was sent to work in the commercial stores of Blackburn Aircraft. They were based on Roundhay Road in Leeds now the site of a Tesco and Homebase stores. You can now find a blue plaque, commemorating the part the factory played during the war, on the wall of Tesco.

This was my dream job. I loved aircraft and just being in the stores was like heaven to me. After a short while in the stores I was offered the opportunity to start an apprenticeship as an electrician, a profession I followed before and after my call up on December 7th 1944.

I was ordered to report to Fort George in the Highlands of Scotland to start six weeks of basic training, where the army tried to turn me into a soldier. I'm not that convinced they succeeded. After a brief break it was down to Catterick Camp in Yorkshire where I joined the Royal Corps of Signals. I guess my training as an electrician was significant in the army's decision to send me to the Corps. Things here brightened up as everyone was a tradesman, even the Regimental Sergeant Major who unusually for a RSM was greatly respected and liked by all.

It was like being back at school making friends and learning new things. We were trained in the art of laying telephone lines and given the job title 'linesman'. This was neither a technical, nor difficult job, but during times of war good communications were very important. I also took the opportunity to learn how to drive, on both four and two wheels, which added greatly to the fun of the place. After this I was sent to Holmfirth (now of Last of the Summer Wine fame) in Yorkshire to await embarkation, to destinations unknown. During my brief stay I had the opportunity of leave and managed

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to get back to Leeds for a few days.

My journey back to Holmfirth, at the end of my leave, should not have posed that big a problem. I went to catch the Holmfirth bus on Water Lane in Leeds and waited and waited and waited. No bus turned up, in fact not a soul was around. I was just starting to contemplate how many days I would get in prison for being Absent Without Leave when a motor bike pulled up alongside me. Sitting on the bike was an RAF chap who, with a cheery greeting, asked me where I was heading. I replied back to my unit at Holmfirth and as luck would have it that was exactly where he was heading. My days in prison had thankfully just been a passing thought. My luck was in on this and many other occasions.

My cousin Ken appeared to be having a much more exciting time. I was both pleased, and proud of him when he joined the RAF, this was the one service I would love to have joined. He started his training for aircrew in the United States of America and Canada and would return to Canada on many further occasions. Strangely I never asked him if he learnt to fly, although I understand that a large number of aircrew did. Ken had a great head for figures so it was no surprise to me that he became a navigator. At that time there was no such thing as satellite navigation, it was all done by maps, rulers and log tables.

In his early days he flew in various aircraft including Ansons and Wellingtons, finally ending up in Lancasters and was first posted to No. 9 Squadron. This was a short lived post as the whole unit was transferred to No. 617 Squadron. This was shortly after the famous Dambuster raid and was no doubt to replace those sadly lost on that revered raid.

We were lucky enough to meet up on leave on numerous occasions, the happiest of these times was when Ken married Vera. I was very proud and honoured to be his best man and they were blessed a year later with a son, Derek. Looking through Ken's log book, now a proud possession of Derek's, makes for interesting reading. One particular raid that stands out was that on the German pocket battleship Tirpitz. The Tirpitz was holed up in a Norwegian fiord and with great understatement, his log book states simply 'sunk'. I only wish he had been able to tell me in more detail of his adventures, but this being war time and the slogan 'walls have ears', was not possible.

Ken, like so many aircrew at the time, had some narrow escapes but sadly his luck ran out on 21st March 1945, so near the end of the war. On a daylight raid over Bremen a direct hit with the bombs still on board ended his and the rest of the crews lives. Flying Officer Kenneth Gill DFC, Aircrew Europe with a star and bar, War Medal with star and bar Croix de Guerre, aged twenty-two, left behind a widow and young child. His wife Vera never remarried always thinking that one day he would return from that raid on Bremen.

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His Croix de Guerre was awarded for flying operations with a French Squadron which for some reason is not entered in his log book Although his award made the newspapers of the time, I have been unable to find out any more details, so for the present it remains one of those many untold stories.

My posting started the weekend after Victory in Europe had been secured. I set sail with my unit, from Southampton heading east and after a brief stop in India and Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) we ended up in Rangoon in Burma. Our unit was attached to the 19th Air Formation Signals and we found our first accommodation to be a very large comfortable house that was obviously in the posh part of town. To my surprise on taking a walk around the area the house was situated on Leeds Road. How ironic when my home town was Leeds. After a brief stay in the house we were based at an Aerodrome at Mingladon about 12 miles away and found ourselves now living in tents. This was a foretaste of what was to come; lots of aerodromes, lots of packing and lots of unpacking.

The work load was to change little throughout my national service. We had very little to do the whole time. We were not complaining, seeing parts of the world we would be unlikely to ever visit, getting well fed after the rationing of home and getting paid. We often wondered why we had ever been sent but we could only play the hand we had been dealt.

It was not long before we were on the move again boarded a Dakota bound for Hong Kong. The pilot turned out to be a superstitious type and after a quick count it turned out there were thirteen of us. Someone had to be offloaded. Very reluctantly one of our drivers was nominated, along with his jeep. First stop was Bangkok and then on to Saigon. It turned out that anyone who flew with RAF transport command, regardless of rank, stayed at the glorious Majestic Hotel. On entering the dining room, we were surprised to find our driver sitting with a very smug look on his face. It turned out he had hitched a lift in another Dakota along with his jeep. So our happy little band headed of in two Dakotas, one with twelve souls and one with only one and his jeep of course.

Arriving in Hong Kong gave me an even bigger shock. As the door of the aircraft opened I was greeted, by an equally shocked friend from back home in Leeds. His name Jeff Nixon; because of the censorship of the time, I was totally unaware of his posting. We both just looked at each other, mouth open and could not find anything more fitting for the occasion than 'what are you doing here?'. We then had a pleasant month in Hong Kong sightseeing and were due to become part of 'Tiger Force' destined to invade Japan, but the Atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki put and [sic] end to that. Tiger Forces destination was to have been Okinawa in Japan, with the intention of

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setting up an aerodrome for Lancaster bombers and other assorted aircraft. The bombers were to have been shipped over from the UK, assembled on site, to then be used in similar roles as that carried out over Europe by my cousin Ken. Had he lived, who knows, we may have ended up based together. The end of the war left us in limbo – what to do with us now?

On 3rd April 1946 after a short stay in Hong Kong our small party of 13, joined around 150 RAF personal to board HMS Apollo bound for Shanghai. HMS Apollo was a long narrow ship and had previously been a minelayer, before taking on its ferrying duties. As a minelayer it may have been a very good ship but as a ferry it was hopeless. It never seemed to pitch but had a slow roll that left all but the strong stomached feeling very seasick.

At the end of our journey we sailed up the beautiful Yangtse [sic] river to dock at the Bund in Shanghai harbour. Transport was waiting to take us to our first billet, Ash Camp. During the war Ash Camp had been used by the Japanese as a prisoner of war camp and it filled us with dread what we might find. Thankfully our reservations were soon put to rest as we arrived to find a very comfortable camp. The mess hall was a pleasant shock, cloth table cloths, knifes and forks laid out and milk, butter and sauces in the middle of the tables. At meal times the Chinese waiters would look after our needs and although there was never a menu, were always able to provide us with excellent food.

News reached England that we were staying in a Japanese prisoner of war camp which gave our loved ones worries about our accommodation. They had witnessed the appalling condition our prisoners had returned home in. We were only too happy to set their minds at rest but were left wondering just what sights the camp had seen over the previous years. We were very much in the dark at the time, but were sure that the last Allied soldiers to stay in Ash Camp had not been as well treated as us. Sadly as the atrocious stories gradually filtered through, we found out that our thoughts had been correct, in fact far worse, than we could ever have imagined.

Our next billet was the poetically named the 'Dairy Farm'. Although not a farm there was a field full of cows behind the billet, beyond that some dog kennels and beyond that the Chinese staff billets. The staff liked to keep chickens and when the cockerel got started early in the morning, it set the dogs barking and the cows mooing which resulted in many of the lads getting very little sleep during our brief stay at the Dairy Farm.

From here we moved to our final quarters at The British Country Club. Although our beds were made up in the billiard room this was a very comfortable place to stay. Our meals were taken in the grand old ball room and there was a full size swimming pool. My friend John Bamber and I decided to grasp the opportunity to learn to swim

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and after a week we had mastered the art of the doggy paddle and a unique form of backstroke.

The purpose of our stay in Shanghai was to establish a staging post for aircraft flying between Hong Kong and Japan. I would like to say that over the next 8 months we were kept busy with the task. This was not the case and gradually the number of personnel was reduced until our party of 13 became 2 with around 100 RAF personnel.

I was lucky enough to be able to spend most of my time enjoying the cosmopolitan city of Shanghai. During this period in Shanghai's history, the city was split into various different national zones. Along with the British zone were Portuguese, American, Russian and French zones. The British zone was near the river and had street names such as Edward VII Street. Each zone reflected its own country and if you ever found yourself lost you could always take a look at the street names to find out who's zone you were in. I had many happy nights sampling different cultures, being invited to various countries all within the confines of one city.

One of the few exciting moments was during a visit to the airfield at Lungwha, just outside the city. John was driving a 3 ton Ford truck with me in the passenger seat. We were driving across the perimeter road, which was poorly names as it went directly across the main runway, when John stalled the truck. There was no automatic ignition on the truck so I jumped out to man the starting handle. John looked on as I turned the V8 engine over with one hand, jumped back in and told him to move quickly. He had not be [sic] able to see the Curtiss Commander coming in to land on top of us. Thankfully disaster had been averted. Once we had got back to camp and calmed down I tried to turn the engine over again, it took all my strength to do it with two hands, let alone one. It is surprising what you can do when blind panic sets in.

After eight happy months in Shanghai we had to leave in a bit of a hurry. The communists were at the outskirts of the city and ready to enter any day. This would be the closest I ever came to actual active service. John and I boarded the ex midget submarine supply ship, HMS Bonaventure and set sail back to Hong Kong. We were the last two British Army personnel to leave Shanghai.

Arriving back in Hong Kong I had to say good bye to John. He had been posted to Singapore while I was to stay on, based at Kaitak aerodrome. This was to be my first proper post since leaving England with the job title 'test clerk'. This involved working from the telephone exchange testing the lines and dealing with any breakdowns. Once again this was not a very demanding job bit [sic] it did have the best working hours I've ever had, 9.00am to 4.00pm with 1 1/2 hours for lunch a NAFFI break morning and afternoon with every Saturday and Sunday off. I took the opportunity to improve my swimming

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with regular visits to Castle Peak Bay.

When I came to the end of my posting I was offered jobs with both Light and Power Company and the Hong Kong Telephone Company. This was very flattering but I missed my parents and wanted to get home to Leeds so, in October 1947, I boarded my last ship, the MV Devonshire and six weeks later arrived back in Liverpool, to be demobbed on December 7th 1947, three years to the date since my call up.

I had always wanted to join the RAF like my cousin Ken. Ironically for the majority of national service I was posted alongside the RAF. This gave me many benefits; good food, good accommodation, some wonderful parts of the world to explore and the chance to see up close the aircraft. I have maintained that love of aircraft to this day, both watching them fly and painting them.

How different this might have been, had I been born two years earlier. My cousin like so many others lost his life aged only twenty-two, here I am retired for over twenty-five years. Those two years we used to joke about cost so many lost years, for those like Ken who never came back and for those like his wife Vera, who never came to terms with the fact, that he never came back. It hardly seems fair.

Arthur Alexander Gill

[inserted] Memorial to Air Force personel. [sic] the name previous to F/O Kenneth Gill is W/C Guy Gibson.



A A Gill, “War changes everything,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/35624.

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