Interview with Bill Bilton

Title

Interview with Bill Bilton

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Bill Bilton served as Motorboat Crew in the Mediterranean.

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Coverage

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02:27:04 audio recording

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Identifier

ABiltonW[Date]-01

Transcription

I’m William Bilton, aged ninety four. I wrote this account of my service in the RAF Marine Section from 1940 to 1946 in September 1998 when I was seventy seven. I’ll start with a summary of my service. I signed on in late 1939, was then sent home on deferred service until April 1940 when I was given the number 993686. Arrived in Padgate June 1940 for six weeks initial training. In July I moved to Woolsington Airport near Newcastle on Tyne waiting for trade training. July to October 1940 trade training for motorboat crew. October 1940 to February 1941 I was on HSLs 103, 111, 141 and 142. February to August 1941 Dover. HMS Wasp. From September 1941 to September 1943 Malta. Kalifrana, St Paul’s Bay and Gozo in the Marine Section and Air Sea Rescue. From September the 7th 1943 to September 1944 in Sicily and Palermo, Ischia, Salerno, Ponza, Anzio and Civitavecchia to September 1944. Posted to the UK in September 1944. From October 1944 to February 1946 at Ayr and then finally demobilised and end of service in April 1946 at Cardington. I signed on aged eighteen late in 1939 but was sent home on deferred service until April 1940 at which time I was called back with a warrant to travel by train to RAF station Padgate near Warrington, Lancashire. Accommodation was scarce and we slept on the floor one between each bed. Things eased up a bit when a few squads finished and moved out. I finally managed to get a bed. During this time it snowed. The place looked nice. White all over. After six weeks initial training we were all posted to various places around the country to await our trade training. My posting from Padgate was to Woolsington. A small airport near Newcastle on Tyne being used at that time as an emergency landing ‘drome. Things were not pleasant there. It rained all the time. There were no proper facilities. Everything was soaking wet with no heating to dry us out. We were used as ground defence guarding the ‘drome. The only excitement there was when we actually opened fire with Lewis guns on a Whitley bomber but it was too high to be hit anyway. We were given the odd days leave which we usually spent in Newcastle. The parent station for Woolsington was Usworth. After a few weeks we were posted down to Calshot near Southampton for our trade training which was to last six to eight weeks. Our instructor Mr Gander an old Navy CPO turned out to be a nice kindly soul full of stories about the First World War. The padre at Calshot was an expert in selling RAF Bibles, Service Edition. Blue leather pocket size. I bought one as did most of the lads for six shillings and sixpence. Kept it in my kitbag for quite a while. Later I carried it in the left top pocket of my tunic or shirt as at Malta in khaki drill. I still have the bible although it’s now much battered.
[recording paused]
Grimsby Air Sea Rescue Unit. I was posted to Grimsby early October 1940 with three others. We set off as per instructions on the travel warrant travelling from Southampton to London, London to Grimsby and then to a parent unit at North Coates. I was assigned to HSL 103. That was a type one, sixty four foot built by the British Power Boat Company of Hythe, Southampton and a month later two new launches arrived. Numbers 141 and 142. The crew of HSL 103 was transferred to HSL 142 and this was my launch for the next few months. HSL 111 was a write off having hit the boom flat out at forty knots stripping her underwater fittings clean off. She was still up the slipway when I left Grimsby in late January or early February of 1941. When we started the launch engines at night the searchlights always came on looking for enemy aircraft. It was quite funny at the time. The launches had three Napier Lion five hundred horse powered engines and the noise they made was like a squadron of Germany bombers coming over. I must say something about the operating conditions on these launches and how, when and where we went to sea. Various organisations were responsible for forwarding information about the airmen down in the sea. This was checked over by the Navy or RAF. Launches put to sea to search and stayed at sea until the airmen were picked up or until there was no possible hope of their survival. Launches were relieved at sea when fuel started to run low. Sea searches were assisted by air cover. Mostly by Lysander aircraft which could actually fly at less than fifty miles per hour. Around the French coast sea searches were carried out by fighter aircraft. A rescue which has stayed in my memory was of a German corporal who was the sole survivor of a Dornier bomber. We’d had a rough do square searching in a half gale about eighty miles east of Grimsby. Obviously, he, the German had had it much rougher. I was amazed how young he looked. Just a lad really. When we landed him at Grimsby he was keeping standing, kept standing outside the HQ hut until the interview people came from North Coates. One day due to some crew shortages I was detailed to HSL 141 just as it was about to put to sea on a crash call. After one spell in the aft ring turret I went down to the foxhole to make tea for all the crew. This was done by the deckhands taking it in terms as they were relieved from watch. Cooking was done on a paraffin stove with a double burner like a double primus stove with two burners, one paraffin tank, a pump for air and a gauge. I was having a problem with the burner smoking. I tried using the burner pricker to clean the nipple but due to the launch bouncing about the pricker broke. I then thought I’d pump the tank up to well in the red hoping this would blow the nipple clear. Well, I’m pumping away like mad when there was an almighty bang. I took off and hit the deck head and came down right across the edge of the locker seating. My first thought was hell I’ve blown the ship up thinking the paraffin tank had gone up. I wasn’t feeling all that great when the coxswain came down and asked if I was alright. By this time I could feel that the launch had stopped. It was then that I was told that we’d hit a mine and were seriously damaged. Believe me I was so pleased and relieved. I know this sounds awful but I could see myself facing a court martial. I then carried on in the galley and did actually get the tea made after a struggle. The launch had stopped and was rolling about in the choppy sea. Damage was confined to the engine room. The starboard engine blown up on top of the centre engine. We returned to base on port engine only. Amazingly no one was injured, not even in the engine room although they must have had an awful fright. It turned out that it had been a finely tuned acoustic mine set off by the vibration of the launches propellers. On reporting to the Admiralty it was noted that when sailing at speed the launch managed to just get clear before the explosion. From then on two launches from RAF and two from the Navy were used to patrol at speed in the Humber mouth. The Navy lost numerous minesweepers to these acoustic mines and the minesweepers as the minesweepers were much slower than the launches. Orders to proceed to Dover with High Speed Launch 142 came in late January or early February. We set off from Grimsby early one morning. Weather fine but cold and sunny. Sea moderate to calm. Things going fine. Passing across Lincolnshire Wash we set off an acoustic mine which caused some hull damage but again no injuries to crew. We had to reduce speed due to taking in water. Many planks sprung. There was a danger of setting off another mine and at the slower speed this would have been quite serious. However, we made it to Gorleston Harbour safely. The next day we set off from Gorleston for Lowestoft arriving ok and straight up the slipway. Repairs started the next day after a whole check over. Civvy billets then arranged for us to stay in Lowestoft. However, all good things finally came to an end when we, when repairs were completed.
[recording paused]
Lowestoft to Dover. Weather very cold but quite bright with a calm sea. A calm following sea doing eighteen hundred revs. About thirty four to thirty five knots. One hour later the weather turned against us. We ran into a full blown gale with very heavy seas, then snow, visibility down to only a few yards. For some reason unknown to the crew our skipper, Flight Lieutenant Scott didn’t want to ease down and tried to plough through the foul weather regardless. He did eventually ease down to fourteen hundred revs which was still too fast for the prevailing weather. Little old me I’m on the watch in the rear turret mounting with no cover over me and slowly freezing to death. I was in my white sub sweater and over that a canvas flying deck suit. By this time all feeling had gone from head to toe. I was relieved for an hour to thaw out. Then back on watch in the rear turret ring mounting. Dover finally sighted. Orders passed on on intercom to make guns safe before entering harbour. At this time we were equipped with twin Lewis 303 machine guns from World War One. One round from each gun was to be fired as the easy way to clear each gun but on firing the left hand gun the ejected cartridge struck the right hand gun and ricocheted right into my left eye. By the time we’d moored to our berth in the ferry dock my eye was a mess and completely closed. My right eye was also beginning to close. I was carted off to the base sick bay in front of a Naval doctor who ordered me to the Royal Naval Hospital, Chatham. After two weeks at RNH Chatham I was moved to special eye hospital at Northwood, Middlesex near London. Three weeks later I was discharged and sent back to Dover back on board High Speed Launch 142. I was considered to have been very lucky to have had five weeks holiday and that was my lot. No leave forthcoming. Not that I was bothered anyway. Things had changed for the better in one respect. Perspex domed turrets had been fitted and the old World War One Lewis guns changed for Vickers 303 twin gas operated which had a better firing rate and less likely to jam. I was put in charge of all four Vickers guns. I don’t know why and had to do all the maintenance etcetera. This meant cleaning after every trip or whenever the guns were fired. I got the princely sum of threepence per day extra for this. I loved looking after the ship’s guns. Actually, I did this on every launch I served on. Guns did change from launch to launch. Some fitted with Browning twin 303 guns with a firing rate of thirteen hundred rounds per minute each. i.e two thousand six hundred per twin mounting. Some launches had three of these mountings later on and some even had twenty millimetre cannons or Hispano or Oerlikons. I was instructed to start gunning up, genning up on seamanship and so forth as I expected to sit my exams for LAC. A bit of a farce really as they already knew I was capable of passing without genning anyway but the RAF being what it was all promotions had to proceed with the usual exams. I still remember doing my rope splicing and finishing it off by rolling it under foot. This made the splice look almost machine perfect. The wire splice was more difficult as the equipment wasn’t there to do it but I coped and fiddled it through. Shortly after this I received my LAC pay. An extra ninepence per day. I had by this time a total of two shillings and threepence extra per day on top of the basic pay of two shillings per day. I felt almost rich. Service pay in those days didn’t increase annually. Any extras had to be earned and after almost six years I was only on eight and nine pence per day. My trade as motorboat crew, MBC was group three on the pay scale. The lowest group being Group 5 which was general duties. We had many patrols and call outs daily and one very remarkable rescue was for a Spitfire pilot down in the drink right over the Goodwin Sands. At about seven hundred hours we were searching the Goodwins in thick fog or more like a thick sea roke. This was thick from sea level to about ten feet high in places. We could see very little and had reduced speed to five or five or six knots. The usual square search was abandoned as parts of the Goodwins had already dried out. To be trapped aground on the Goodwins was every skipper’s nightmare. Worse so in broad daylight. The ME109s would have a glorious time using us for target practice. Anyway, our longest boat hook was used as a sounding pole and this kept us in about a fathom of water as least. We were stopping and switching the engine off from time to time listening for a whistle that we knew the pilots carried. No whistling sound was heard when strangely the fog lifted and there about a hundred yards on the port bow was this bright yellow dinghy with the sun shining on it and the pilot waving madly at us. So it was down with the crash nets on the port side and a line thrown to the pilot who was just sitting in his dinghy with a bible open on his knee with the biggest smile on his face I’d ever seen. Later he explained that wherever he went his bible went with him. I believe I learned something from that. The pilot’s name was Pilot Officer Beak and a most pleasant chap he was too. He told us that he’d been returning from a patrol over France when a Messerschmitt 109 had come out of the sun and jumped him. His Spitfire was set on fire and he baled out as he said hoping for the best. That fog may have saved his life. Who knows. After returning to his base at Biggin Hill he sent me a photo and a short but pleasant letter. I’d sent a photo of the rescue taken with my old Brownie camera. When he saw me taking the photos he asked if I’d send him a copy. Hence the photo of himself by return. I still have his photo and letter to this day. I should have had it but the letter was to all the crew. Another morning HSLs 142 and 143 skippered by PO Chapman who’d come down with us from Grimsby were out on rendezvous standby. 142 off Folkestone and 143 off Dungeness an area about three to five miles offshore. 142 was laid to on a canvas sea anchor. This was the usual procedure holding head to wind and tide and made for a quick release in an emergency. This standby was carried out daily to cover for bomber and fighter sweeps returning from France. There were a few miles in between all launches that we could just about see each other on a good day. Three quarters of the crew would normally be on watch and the engines were warmed up every hour. We suddenly spotted a pall for smoke from roughly the position where Launch 143 should be. We radioed base, VAD, Vice Admiral Dover and received orders to investigate. On reaching the position we found launch 143 blazing from end to end. There were no crew about, no Carley float, no survivors in the sea. A few minutes after our arrival 143 sank out of sight. We carried out an extensive search but found nothing at all. Not even wreckage. We were then ordered back to our rendezvous position off Folkestone. An hour later we were relieved by launch 146 and returned to base feeling a bit on the glum side. At this time due to no survivors it was presumed that the launch 143 had had a run in with German e-boats and had come off worst. Days later German radio announced that their e-boats had encountered a British MTB and sunk it off Dungeness taking four prisoners from a total crew of about eleven or twelve. The Warden Hotel in Dover was the base for a Royal Navy MTB and Minesweeping Unit and an RAF Rescue Unit with eight to ten launches. Naval actions in broad daylight were common occurrences. In fact, the whole base was on twenty four hour action stations. Bombing and strafing by German aircraft was almost non-stop. The worst being at normal mealtimes. Long range shelling was a nerve wracking experience until one got used to it. The shelling was so sudden at least you got some warning when enemy aircraft were approaching. It was quite amusing to watch the Messerschmitt 109s shoot up all the barrage balloons ready for their bombers to come in. We lived with a lot of luck and comical fatalism. At the time I thought well this must be the hottest place on earth but I was sadly wrong as events and place were to prove. This is just another incident which happened on Launch 142. We were moored in the ferry dock one morning just enjoying a morning coffee when an air raid started which was actually an attack on the base Ferry Dock. We suddenly heard the scream of bombs coming uncomfortably close. There we were, eight of us one minute sipping coffee, the next all trying to get under the foxhole table head first. Our heads were under the table, the rest of us sticking out at all angles. We looked at each other and started laughing at the funny side of it. What a plywood table would, what a plywood table would have saved us from nobody knows. Not much anyway. One needed these funny incidents now and then and then never forgotten. Another incident occurred during a search for a German pilot just off the French coast. We were buzzed continuously by five Messerschmitt 109s for about three to four minutes which was a long time. The ME109s then moved away some distance and then returned. We started to move away which seemed to be what they wanted. Then a German float plane arrived to search for their pilot. We had to wait for an RTB signal from the base VAD before we could move too far from our position but we were gradually moving away. No HSL could take on five ME109s. I often wondered if they did manage to rescue their pilot.
[recording paused]
It happened one night. Launch 142 was in for an engine change and other repairs at the far end of Wellington Dock. We were out of the water drying out on a narrow pier with a pontoon board just ahead of the pier end. The launch was on its usual trolley with the wheels chopped up lucky for us. Most of the crew were sent back to the base leaving myself and another deck hand on board as boat watch overnight. I think the other lad was Tony Harris. After dark we got our heads down for a full night’s kip or so we thought. A terrific bang and crash woke us both up. Everything was moving about and shaking. Then suddenly it all went quiet. We hadn’t even had a chance to get out of our bunks so we decided to go back to sleep. On waking in the morning and going down on deck we found lots of damage. Wheelhouse windows blown in and other things either missing or not in their proper place. Looking up, forward and over the bows we saw that half the pontoon had been blown up and the bows of the launch almost hanging in space. Were we two lucky ones? It was about 7:30. We phoned the base, reported the damage as not being too serious but the launch needed moving further back away from the damaged end of the pier in case of the collapse of the pier and serious damage to the launch. Dover was really turning out to be a nice place. 142 was out of action for two weeks. Whilst the repairs were going on the crew were used as relief for crews on leave or stood down. This of course meant crewing other launches. Every night we had to supply a boat watch for the damaged 142 at Wellington Dock. Tony and I did one more boat watch which passed without incident although we did stay awake most of the night. Our daily life at Dover remained much the same throughout. I still remember the names of some of the crew from 142. WO Bullock, First coxswain and Base SWO. Sergeant Mitchell, 1st coxswain. Corporal Jock Smith, 2nd coxswain. Sergeant Duke Wellington, 1st engineer. Corporal Paddy Smith, 2nd engineer. Tony Harris, deckhand. Tubby Nunn, deckhand. Rashid Ali, deckhand. Lofty Cottle, deckhand. Corporal Tovey, wireless operator. Chalky White, wireless operation. Query Jackson, medical orderly. Flight Lieutenant Scott, skipper. Around about the middle of June a Crown Film Unit arrived at Dover the idea being to come out on a rescue trip and film it all. The trouble was they weren’t very good sailors. However, they did manage to complete the filming. This was to help future pilot training showing them how they would be rescued if they were shot down over the sea. I think they made it all look far too easy as visiting pilots from Biggin Hill soon told us they were ordered to spend a full twenty four hours out on the launches which they didn’t like one bit. The actual filming was carried out on launches 122 and 142. Still photos were sold to crews at a low price and I think we all got some as the actual photography was brilliant. Life at Dover continued roughly the same. Some quiet days and some not so quiet. The base was good though. Food very good and as much as you could eat. All cooked by our own cook, Jock Longston a serviceman who had served on HMS Wasp during World War One. The Messing arrangement are what the Navy called Canteen Messing. Each ship had to have its own mess caterer with food being ordered from the Navy victualing store and each mess supplying its own cook. Jock was pretty good and did pack each crew member going on leave with an amount of tinned food for home. In the square outside the Lord Warden Hotel i.e. HMS Wasp there were three nice pubs where I first got the taste for best bitter. We often went on night rendezvous with a few under our belts. Just after this the RAF took over a house in the square and we were billeted there but still messed at HMS Wasp so that was ok. My days at Dover were soon to come to an end. I’d asked for a posting overseas and by August or September I was officially posted to an unknown destination. It surprised me how soon it came through and not knowing where I was going I was given three days leave. My last for three years. Three days embarkation leave wasn’t very long so I’d got to get a move on. When leaving any RAF base you had to get clearance from every section therein and also an officer’s signature. You weren’t allowed to depart any base with anything other than your own kit issued. This meant having to return any equipment on loan. Well, I was all signed up and had to report to the sick bay. On arriving there I was informed I was to have some inoculations, TAB and another one. The medical officer was out playing cricket at some interservices match and I was expected to await his return when the match was over. It was already late afternoon and I was wanting to catch the last train to London. I started to get a sweat on because if I didn’t catch the last train I’d just about lose a full days leave. The medical officer was contacted at the cricket field and came over to the sick bay in a foul mood. Did I feel those inoculations? I’ll say I did. In fact, they were the worst I’d ever experienced. Anyway, off I go to Dover Train Station and catch the last train to London due to arrive about midnight. I’d got two large kitbags with me. One with just kit in and one with kit and also grub packed by Jock, the Mess caterer, including two bottles of Navy rum. The weight of that second kit bag was something shocking. After changing trains in London I made over to Leeds to see Doris Gibson, my future wife. Doris was in digs and working at a wallpaper and decorating shop. We had a nice evening together going to the pictures as was the done thing in those days. Everything was prim and proper and after the evening we said our goodbyes and I booked into the Queen’s Station Hotel for the night. I must say it was very posh. I’d never been in a hotel before and was surprised at the level of comfort provided. I’ll never forget the price charged. One pound five shillings. That was more than a week’s service pay. I arranged an early call for 6am and a cup of tea. Then a bath and then down to the dining room for breakfast. The porridge was off shocking but the following fry up was great. Then I had a train to catch for the RAF station. I think it was Wilmslow. I booked in at the guardroom and was sent over to Number 4 Wing embarkation and from there by truck to Birkenhead. A long time waiting on the pier before being allowed to board ship. Along with forty other MBC lads we were finally allowed to get on the ship strangely named MV Ajax. The surprising thing was that the ship was a passenger cargo boat and was still working her cargo on as we boarded. I think we’d expected something like the Queen Mary and a fast passage to parts unknown. What a shock we got. However, being MBC, i.e. motorboat crew we soon got over it all and settled down for a night’s kip. Our first night in a hammock. That was fun. Fun and games to start with. MV Ajax was a fairly modern ship operated by Lamport and Holt, a well-known Liverpool shipping company i.e. Blue Funnel Line. Convoy harbour early September 1941. 6am the next morning we were woken with the Navy shout of, ‘Rise and shine.’ And, ‘Lash up and stow.’ This meant fasten your hammock up. This was funny as they were slung every night over the mess deck tables. We had to organise our Mess and a runner to fetch meals from the ship’s galley. This being right aft meals often arrived a bit on the cool side but were very good. Well cooked. The last decent food we would have for a year or two. The ship had a Chinese crew but British officers. The cooks really were the best. Better than the cooks at the Ritz. The ship pulled out of the dock and into the River Mersey just after breakfast time. We were allowed on deck to watch and the sight that met us was unbelievable. Myself being used to the Humber and it’s shipping could hardly believe my eyes. There was such a mass of ships and all loaded down to their marks. I even recognised some ships even though they were all painted different shades of grey. There were ships from P&O, Port Line, Blue Funnel, Clan Line and Ellerman City Line. Also a few I didn’t know. Among them a large French passenger ship being used as a troop ship, and the Breconshire, a Navy supply ship which I was to get to know somewhat closely and rather fondly in years to come. I got on well with the other MBCs especially Ron Whittaker and Stan Oakes. Whilst still laying in Liverpool roads we were organised into using the ships extra armaments us MBCs being lucky and being ordered to do bridge watch using the Hotchkiss 303 machine guns on each bridge wing. Four hours on and four hours off. This sounded a bit rough but it pleased us better than being cooped up down below in between decks. Another section of ships arrived from the Clyde and then everything started to get hectic with ships moving about all over the place finally shaping up in to four main lines. Then down came darkness. No moon or stars but we knew the ships were setting out. Up to now we hadn’t seen much sign of the Navy escort. Just a few minesweepers and the odd old American four funnel jobs i.e. World War One destroyers. This didn’t please us too much either. However, the following morning at daybreak we saw the biggest Naval escort ever. Three battle wagons, two aircraft carriers, six cruisers and about twenty six destroyers plus a multiple of other ships like the rescue tugs, sweepers and small Naval utility craft. Some utility craft were to be dropped off at Gibraltar enroute to wherever. We still had no idea where we were going. We did know we were heading about southwest but it was days before we turned east towards Gibraltar or as we thought and hoped South Africa. There were about three hundred and fifty RAF on board Ajax and some Army wallahs and all were involved some way in the ships protection. My post was on the starboard bridge wing with LAC Ron Whittaker. We were very proud to be there as starboard lookout was a responsible job and the Hotchkiss machine gun was such a relic we wondered if it had come from the Boer War of 1902. Ammunition was loaded into hinged metal belts taking five rounds of 303. Then a hinge. Then five more rounds. Then so on. The belt zigzagging down into a wooden box. Later on we had need to use the gun but I’m sure we didn’t manage to hit anything. We didn’t knock any kites down.
[recording paused]
Atlantic incident in the middle of the night. We were off watch about 02:00 hours and asleep in our hammocks when there was this almighty crash, juddering and things dropping on the deck. The fear was uppermost in our minds was, was torpedoing and us trapped down below because by now orders were all troops not on duty were to remain below and to ensure this order was carried out armed guards were on all exits from the troop quarters. This meant RAF as well. Things went quiet eventually. The ship had been stopped for some time. How long I don’t know but eventually we were underway again. We didn’t sleep anymore but Ron and I were due on watch at 04:00 hours. It was then that we found out that we’d, that MV Ajax had been in collision with another ship and all lifeboats on the starboard side knocked off and sunk or lying battered to bits on the deck bent out of shape. Lifeboat drill was carried out at daybreak and everything altered as to which lifeboat station to report to. Special orders were regardless of boat station or boat number do not get in lifeboat if any Chinese crew were in it. Each and every one of them carried knives and would use them to keep a lifeboat to themselves. By now we were in the Mediterranean and guessed Malta was our final destination. It couldn’t be Alexandria as ships for there went around by the Cape and Suez so Malta it was and soon it was a fight all the rest of the way. Practically three to four days of twenty four hour standby on the guns. Damage to one of the aircraft carriers, then to the battleship Nelson. Four destroyers sunk and one merchantman and we were considered very lucky at that. We were a grubby lot, looking lot on arrival at Malta. One thing that stuck in my memory was being battered. Battened down when all hell broke loose up top from the bofors gun. The RAF padre came down to keep us company and boost our sorry morale and he actually started a game of cards. We played for money. I think we all felt a bit guilty but the padre was really great and I know as far as I was concerned it did help. I never knew his name but we didn’t see him again after our arrival in Malta. Malta was a real shock. First of all we had to help unload the ship. At least the petrol. Thousands of four gallon American square tins loaded up to the most old and battered lorries. Some were still chain driven and solid tyres. As we loaded up a lorry we went with it to the caves in the middle of the island, offloaded and buried it out of sight and then back to the docks for more. This went on for nearly a week. During the night we slept at Ta Kali Airfield. A fighter base with Hurricanes. Spitfires had not yet arrived. Finally, we managed to arrive at our main operating base, Kalafrana. This was a Sunderland Flying Boat base. General Marine Activities and Air Sea Rescue base. I fully expected to be made up on to crew launch 129 or 128. However, I was put in the General Marine Craft Section as there were no vacancies on either launch. I knew nothing about Sunderland Flying Boats and all that went with it. I had to learn the hard way. September 1941 to September 1943 Kalafrana, Sliema, and St Paul’s Bay and Gozo. Kalafrana was located at the southeast tip of Malta in Marslaxlokk Bay. The main base in Malta for General Marine and Air Sea Rescue for the RAF. My first job at Kalafrana was night laying a flare path for Sunderland Flying Boats to land during darkness. Special floats with top lights on short masts, three or four floats in all. These are towed into position depending on wind directions with about a hundred fathoms of rope between each float. These were then towed out as follows. Floats are laid on a slipway and a towing vessel takes hold and sets of quite slowly pulling a float down the slip and into the water. When all the floats are in line a second vessel then hangs on to the last float and away we go. The head tow tows the lot out to position in a wide sweep to get the floats in a straight line and when this is done to satisfaction the head tow then signals with an aldis lamp for the rear tow to drop anchor from the last float. The head tow then pulls the whole thing tight and holds it there until flying is finished. Simple as that. Just one thing more. After anchoring the last float the rear tow runs along the flare path and switches on the lights. Single white lights but the head, head tow displays arrow in lights to mark the end of the flare path for direction to incoming Flying Boats. Now, this is what really happened. All was going quite well with myself in charge of rear tow which was an open powered dinghy. I’d hung on to the last float and was being towed along at a nice steady three knots and the wide sweep was completed. Without any further instructions the head tow which was a quite powerful old type pinnace with a single semi-diesel engine suddenly put on a great burst of speed and caught us napping. The next second we were swamped and half full of sea. I’d no option but to yell out, ‘Chuck the ropes overboard with the anchor.’ This released the dinghy from further swamping. Unfortunately, the deck hand had not attached the anchor to the rope and the flare path sailed away out of sight. Much panic now from head to tow, from head tow. I signalled for another vessel to come out and bring another anchor and take over the rear end of the flare path. Talk about Fred Karnos. He wasn’t in it this night. Finally the flare path was secured in position. We were still baling out and with a dead engine we had to be towed back to base in disgrace with our heads down. I learned a lot from this and from then on made sure that whatever I had to do I was solely in charge. The head tow pinnace was in charge of a civilian coxswain. I made quite sure that he didn’t ever play me up again. The enquiry that followed the next morning was something unbelievable. More stress was laid on the loss of the small anchor than the possible sinking of the power dinghy. My deck hand got it in the neck for failing to attach the anchor to the rope and I got a bit of a rollicking for not seeing that it was done. The next standby flying and flare path control went so smoothly. I was in charge of the pinnace on the head tow from then on. One actually became a bit bored with the job but it had to be done. It livened up a bit when the weather got up. There was always a seaplane tender in attendance as duty crash boat. Sunderlands and Catalinas could sometimes do funny things when landing in rough conditions. By the way Sunderlands were not easy things to tow especially in a side wind should there have been wind. The main tow rope for the actual towing and the line to each wing tip or float was the only safe way to do it. Stand by flying was the main part of our lives for a while. There were many and varied jobs involved. After landing crew and passengers were taken off. Then any cargo carried was taken ashore. If required for maintenance up the slip and into the hangar the Sunderland had to be defueled every drop. When Sunderlands were to, were to go out on patrol depth charges and bombs were loaded up. This could be a nasty job when there was a bit of a chop on. Generally we were kept quite busy and at this time with only a little attention from Germans and Italians it didn’t seem too bad at all for a month or two. Many other strange jobs started to turn up and had to be carried off the cuff. This made for some interesting work. I then had a short spell on the crew of Rescue Launch 129. About a month all told and then it was back in the Marine Sector due to a bunch of lads being posted home to the UK. This made the section short of coxswains. I was to be made up to regular coxswain if I passed my exams ok. I’d been doing most coxswains work but unpaid as LAC. Leading aircraft man. I’d much swatting to do especially with regard to navigation. I had a Scotch lad, a coxswain who helped me quite a lot and supplied him with navigations books numbers one to three which I bought for eight shillings. By this time the bombing of Malta started. Started in earnest. I was taking my navigation exam along with Maxi Brier and Stephens. We were interrupted three times during the exam and forced to take shelter each time. We were sitting the exam at HQ building which was evacuated by order during the air raids. This wasn’t very helpful to exam results. Anyway, I passed with eighty percent. Maxi got seventy nine and Stephens didn’t pass and had to sit a second time and passed ok. I was now a fully fledged corporal coxswain. Duties to be carried out increased quite a lot. Being an NCO I had to take the jankers parade and the first time I took the parade things turned out quite comical. Janker wallas had to turn up on parade looking very smart with backpack and side packs perfectly fastened up and spotless with webbing belts all nicely [blankowed] and packs checked for correct weight. I was marching them up and down the main front of Sunderland hangar and doing a few direction changes. At this moment they were marching towards the end of the slipway and pier. I don’t know why because I’d already done the whole procedure three or four times but this time I got tongue tied. All I had to do was order about turn but it just wouldn’t come out and the first three lines went over the top for unscheduled swim. I managed to halt all the others. Wasn’t my face red hot. The three lads that went over were all pals of mine. One was even in my crew. A good laugh was had by everybody but me. However, nobody cracked on about it so I got away with it although I did a bit of extra drill to cope. As a regular coxswain I’d do duty NCO and the duty pier master who was responsible for whatever happened and whatever emergencies turned up from start of duty at 08:00 hours to 08:00 the following morning. Many things happened to keep a pier master on his toes during his twenty four hour stint of duty including announced visits by the section base CO and the group captain station commander. I was duty pier master the day Rescue Launch 129 was badly shot up with two dead and two wounded and a few slight injuries. Serious cases died the next day at hospital known as 90 GH. The launch had been jumped by Messerschmitt 109s. The first coxswain and the four turret man didn’t know what hit them. Skipper, Flight Lieutenant Nichols directed the launch back to base and second cox did the steering etcetera with only one hand. The other hand and half the wheel were shot away. The skipper and rear turret man were the two that died the next day. As soon as the crew were taken off the launch had to be taken off the slip and into the hangar. It was taking in water very fast. Launch 129 must have been an unlucky ship as before it could be repaired it was destroyed when the Fleet Air Arm hangar was bombed during a dive bomb attack by Juncker 87s known by their other name of Stukas. A Swordfish on floats was lost in the same attack. Kalafrana was now coming in for some serious attention from German bombing raids. Things were really starting to hot up. Malta was down to two rescue launches. One at Kalafrana, 128, and one at St Paul’s Bay, 107. Three, these launches were sixty three and sixty four feet long and capable of full sea going anywhere in any weather conditions. Quite a lot of rescue work was also being carried out by seaplane tenders up to fifteen to twenty miles off the coast. They were thirty eight foot [Waltons.] Air raids were coming in four of five times a day in daylight. A lot of the raids were over our base and on to Hal Far, the Fleet Air Arm airfield about a mile to the west of Kalafrana. The trouble was you never knew whether the planes were coming for us at Kalafrana or going onto Hal Far. In about one month in July, June July 1942 Kalafrana was completely blown to bits. Hangars, slipways, piers and main stores. Half the cookhouse went and also the NAAFI stories. Large boulders were dropping down on to the launches and utility boats which we removed straight away regardless of the raids continuing. I remember one raid I was shifting boulders from off a seaplane tender when the CO bumped into me on the deck. We carried on together until the job was finished. There was no more, there was no saluting or, ‘Yes, sir.’ ‘No, sir.’ That day. We just both got on with it. The nearby air raid shelter got a close hit so I was glad I wasn’t in it.
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A seven mile journey taking seven hours. I woke up one morning with a very sore throat which I put down to the dust created during the air raids on the base. I carried on that day. The next day it had got worse but I expected it soon to get better so I stayed on duty. By now though it was I was unable to eat anything. I was letting my pals in turn have my meal ticket. We all had a meal ticket which was marked out in days and was clipped at each mealtime. On the third day I was in a right state and the medical officer was brought to me and ordered me into hospital. By 10 o’clock I was in an ambulance on my way. One other chap was in the ambulance. That was the second coxswain from launch 129 with a badly shot up hand. He was going to 90 GH for further treatment. The ambulance driver was a Maltese civilian. His orders were to stop the ambulance and go to cover if there were any air raids. This he did. The snag was I couldn’t get out of the ambulance as I felt too ill and the temperature inside was well past a hundred and ten degrees. The other chap stayed in with me to keep me company. I was gasping by now and running some sort of fever. We were in that ambulance all day from 10:00 hours to 17:30. When we arrived at the guard room outside the hospital I staggered inside with the help of Corporal Hudson, the other chap. An Army sergeant behind the desk was checking the list and bellowed at us, ‘Where have you been? You’re five and a half hours late.’ I couldn’t even speak. We were sent to different parts of the hospital and I never met Corporal Hudson ever again. The Army sergeant slung two blankets, a pillow and a pair of sheets at me and said, ‘Up to the first floor you.’ No lift in those days. I staggered up two flights of stairs and just collapsed inside the ward doorway. I woke up nicely tucked up in bed. From then on I had to have hot bandages around my throat every hour and to force down tablets that felt like mountains. I was classed on my bed as unmoveable. The next day a nasty air raid was aimed at Ta Kali airfield alongside the hospital. I was the only patient classed as unmoveable which meant I couldn’t be taken out to the underground shelter and I had to stay in bed in the ward whatever happened. Bombs were coming close and the building was shaking. There was dust and plaster everywhere but a duty ward sister stayed with me through it all. She just sat alongside my bed knitting and talking to me until the raid was over. The duty nurse did this during every raid. After about four to five days I was allowed to get up and then took shelter with the other lads but I wasn’t allowed outside for a few more days. Those nurses at 90 GH were absolutely marvellous and for sheer guts nobody could surpass them. I was discharged after two weeks and sent back to Kalafrana. The return journey took about a half an hour.
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Destruction of thirty nine Spitfires, Ta Kali. On my last day but one at 90 General Hospital a gang of us were sat at the boundary wall between the hospital and Ta Kali airfield, the fighter ‘drome, when forty three Spitfires landed from the aircraft carriers HMS Eagle and USS Wasp. As they landed they were jumped by a load of Messerschmitt 109s and thirty nine out of the ’43 were shot up and bombed. Totally destroyed. The Spitfires had landed short of fuel and no armaments fitted so they could not protect themselves. We watched all this as we were just sitting on the wall. We couldn’t believe such a thing had been allowed to happen. I think that moment made us all feel lower in spirits than at any other time during our whole service in the RAF. When would it all end and what was it all for? Would we ever see Blighty again? I found there was only one answer as far as I was concerned and that was back to Kalafrana and more work in as many duty hours as I could cram in. Anything to avoid thinking about it all. My arrival back at Kalafrana saw an even more, saw even more air raid damage to the base.
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The sinking of HMS Breconshire. There was a Naval supply ship of eleven thousand tons half tanker, half dry cargo. She’d done four previous convoys to Malta and this was the fifth and final one. On approaching Malta she was bombed and put out of action with a flooded engine room. Some hours later Malta’s two paddle tugs took her in tow and pulled her into Kalafrana Bay known as Marsaxlokk then moored up to the battleship buoys. Breconshire was in a bad way and only three out of six ships in convoy from Gibraltar made it to Malta and the Breconshire sank later that day. This is how it happened. It was decided to try and lighten the ship by taking off all moveable deck gear and anything that was heavy. I was duty cox with the Seaplane Tender 338. Towed a lighter alongside Breconshire in which to dump the heavy gear under the ship’s captain’s instructions. Hand operated derricks were used to do this work. Breconshire was so low in the water now that we could step on to the deck straight from the seaplane tender. Things were going smoothly. Spare anchors and cable, spare propellers and such like were now loaded into the lighter. It didn’t seem to be much good though as the ship was just about sinking. Then an air raid started and Junkers and Messerschmitts came at the Breconshire. Bombs landed at midships wiping out two gun crews and setting the ship on fire. Its cargo was considered so dangerous that the abandon ship order was given. The air raid was still going on as I took the seaplane tender to a spot off the ship’s bows where a bomb had just landed. We circled around in the bomb splash. There was no point staying alongside in case of further bomb hits. Within five minutes the raid was over. On board Seaplane Tender 338 I had a crew of three and the base CO. We went back alongside Breconshire and the whole crew jumped on board. Up to eighty odd Navy blokes. We were only supposed to carry twenty five to thirty people. When they were all off, all on I set off for the base at Kalafrana about a mile away. The seaplane tender was not answering the wheel too well due to severe overloading and I was having to steer using the engines. My come alongside at base was not very good. In fact, we hit the pier right where the group captain, station commander were stood. He didn’t like it one little bit and said so giving me a right earful. The Navy lads were jumping ashore. Some actually tore the group captain off a strip for playing hell with me. My base CO Flight Lieutenant Crockett came in with a helping hand and said I’d carried out all orders correctly and under unusual circumstances. I patrolled all night around the Breconshire. The fire lit up the whole bay. We expected the ship to blow up at any time but somehow it didn’t. I went off duty at 08:00 hours and got my head down for a few hours. I was off duty for a while and watched as 338 was again used to take some stores off. This was bacon, crates of eggs, piles of cigarettes and tinned baby food. Breconshire’s fires, fire was by now unstoppable and she’d turned on portside and sank. Holes were cut in the ship’s side which was just showing above water and a coastal tanker started taking off as much oil as she could. This tanker, the Vauxhall pulled away from Breconshire with five hundred tons of oil on board when the Germans came down again and bombed and sank it. A no win situation if ever there was one. The next day we carried on trying to salvage all we could by hand pumping it into fifty gallon drums and loading them into lighters. I was now in charge of Pinnace 22 towing the lighters to and from the sunken ship. I had a Naval lieutenant with me on the pinnace. This stayed, this system was carried on until we couldn’t get any more oil out by hand pumping. It was quite nerve wracking stood on the side of the ship using a semi notary pump on a stand with nowhere to hide if a raid came on. Pinnace 22 was a pinnace of the old type 2 and handled quite well. Much better than old pinnace 3. This was a sad end to a fine ship and ship’s company. Her captain was a full Naval captain, Hutchinson usually known as Old Hutch. He wasn’t far off his pension. I was to be twenty one on August 31st right in the middle of a three services manoeuvre. Our orders for that day were well taken care of. We were to put to sea under cover of darkness and lay offshore until 01:00 hours. We couldn’t let our celebration plans be scuppered completely so we organized a chicken which was boiled secretly during the day in the billet. We filled about a dozen empty bottles with local booze and beet which came white and brown. The RAF had nicknamed it Stuka juice. Anyway, we put to sea, myself and the crew along with six Army demolition experts. Their part in the manoeuvres [pause] manoeuvres was to blow up the main Sunderland hangar, Marsaxlokk Bay silently and undetected. We proceeded to lay off shore as directed and once in our allotted place we all used the hours to enjoy the chicken and booze. At 01:00 hours a merry crew set out for Kalafrana Bay. I ran alongside the steel lighter. Not without some bumping and banging I’m afraid. Our by then good friends the demolition experts climbed up and across the lighter to the pier making more noise than a Navy boarding party. For some strange reason the main Sunderland hangar was safe that night. Strange though. Nothing was ever said about the botched up manoeuvres. I never forgot that night’s fun though.
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St Paul’s Bay. Shortly after the sinking of the Breconshire I was posted to St Paul’s Bay which was at that time our only other Marine base in Malta. I had to take the Seaplane Tender 218 to St Paul’s Bay for use as a general utility boat. This was ok for me as I had my own crew with me, LAC Stan Oake, LAC Ron Whittaker, LAC Clarkson, and a fitter and also a wireless operator. Things were quite different at St Paul’s Bay and I’m sure now after thinking back that myself and my crew were sent there to rest up a bit. We were operating with another crew twenty four hours on, twenty four off. Twenty four hours off were completely free to do whatever you like. Trips to Valetta the capital city were quite frequent but dodging air raids was no fun. I found Rescue Launch 107, a sailing dinghy in a shed at the base and got permission to rig it up. It didn’t take much doing and the rig was a dipping lug sail. I’d never sailed a small boat before but I soon got the hang of it and sailed St Paul’s Bay as often as possible. The bay was about three miles long and one and a half wide so I wasn’t short of space and there were no German aircraft to bother me. I was operating as far as Gozo with ST 218 ferrying all three services. A tidy little number but after about six weeks things went wrong and I was back at Kalafrana. By the end of the week I had to take ST 218 back to Kalafrana for a new shaft and propeller. Also to sort out the gear box with all its, with all its attention from air raids. I’d enjoyed my six weeks at St Paul’s Bay. It was just the rest I needed. I’d taken a fancy to Gozo and also Comino Island during my stay. I was to go back to St Paul’s Bay and Gozo later on for rescue standby for Sicily. Settled into Kalafrana again with its duty coxswain and pier master duties. Things on Malta were now in a desperate state. Fuel, food and ammunition was very scarce and there was no convoys arriving. Submarines were coming to Kalafrana using the [unclear] pier just bringing in the most urgent supplies such as baby milk, engine spares for aircraft, torpedoes, some heavy ack ack ammunition and boots for service personnel. Submarines had to be unloaded at night and during the day the subs had to put to sea and lay submerged. Once again the whole job fell to the RAF Marine Section which was lighter towing etcetera with the odd Pinnace Number 3. Our base CO often came out with us but rarely interfered. We even carried on one night after the Germans dropped a load of flares and the whole place was lit up like daylight. The submarine was quickly unloaded and put out to sea before the expected air raid. There were no more submarines for three weeks. During this time two Sunderlands and one Catalina were destroyed by bombing and another Sunderland lost due to breaking her moorings in a full gale. One of my deckhands, Stan Oake was given a mention in despatches for his efforts when trying to save the Sunderland from sinking. One submarine had come in with cargo, a cargo of self-igniting smoke floats for use in Kalafrana. I got the job and asked for a volunteer crew to operate Utility Boat A1. This was a heavy half deck fast towing launch. Smoke floats were loaded into the well deck. We had to lay smoke over Kalafrana Bay each time an air raid took place. A nasty job but it had to be done. We would start laying smoke well up wind and zigzag across the bay before having to run back through the smoke and start all over again as the first lot of smoke started to thin out. This was worse than thick fog and I had to remember where the Breconshire was and where a few other mooring buoys were. Mind you I could move about Kalafrana with my eyes shut. I made a list from the chart of all the compass courses I might need.
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Another gale and I’m duty coxswain. It’s night time, pitch black and pelting down with rain. The base area called the [Camber] and the whole bay was in a howling heaving mass of rough sea. I was doing a check on all boats and planes in the moorings when I found a large lighter loaded with aircraft spares had broken adrift close to a rocky shore. Something had to be done to save these valuable spares. I rang through to the CO and explained the situation. I did need permission to try and save the lighter which was now fast on the rocks. It meant my putting the seaplane in a very dangerous position in order to fasten a tow line. The CO went around to the lighter and managed to climb aboard. I went stern first as close as possible hoping my propellers wouldn’t catch on the rocks and a tow rope was passed over using a heaving line first. The CO did well to catch and then fastened the tow line as the lighter was passing up and down on the rocks and making an awful noise. We then set off on a two mile tow in a full gale to a sheltered part of the bay. The tow was all over the place and I could only manage less than half a knot. It took all night but that didn’t matter. It was daylight when we got the lighter safely moored up and back to Kalafrana. Something I should have mentioned before October to April service dress was ordinary blue uniform and the rest of the year khaki drill i.e. shorts and shirts in daytime and long sleeves and long khaki trousers at night. This was to avoid mosquitoes biting us and also the minute sand fly at night. Sand fly fever often laid us low. It felt like a bad dose of flu. The other medical problem was Malta Dog, a form of dysentery often caused by eating something that hadn’t been washed properly like grapes, tomatoes and figs. One learned the hard way not to touch these things when away from base. The base CO was also the rescue launch skipper. It was amazing how he managed both the rescue work and was also in charge of the Marine Section Base. Flight Lieutenant Crockett, later squadron leader was the finest seaman I ever met.
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Maryland reconnaissance plane shot down, Marsaxlokk Bay, Kalafrana Bay. The plane was returning from a reconnaissance flight and was passing over Kalafrana heading for Hal Far when it was jumped by three or four Messerschmitt 109s and was shot down in the bay near Delimara Point. We went straight out in seaplane tender 338 and picked up five crew members. The ME109s were still attacking both plane and the crew in the water obviously to sink all information that it had gathered in North Africa. Things were getting too hot to hang about and we left the scene sharpish leaving five parachutes floating in the sea. A Maltese Bofors battery on the Delimara Point had really saved the day. Their ability to fire right down to sea level was something worth watching. The Maltese were pretty good gunners and very brave with it. All cameras and film were lost but at least the Maryland crew were able to pass on information of what they’d seen. Only one crew member was slightly wounded. Again, food seemed to be getting shorter. At least rations were. I doubt now if fortress rations were even up to one quarter. I know we were all feeling quite run down and jumpy. Water was again tightly rationed. The fresh water complex had been bombed twice and wasn’t functioning up to full capacity. I think we were back to a pint of tea morning and teatime and most of the bathing was done off the pierhead. The arrival of four rescue pinnaces sixty footers, target towing, triple Perkins engines and diesels. Four pinnaces arrived from Bône in North Africa, Algeria. On arrival much maintenance had to be carried out without causing some delay before they became operational. I was working flat out refuelling Flying Boats and all the other jobs. Now getting very tired of all this. The Italian fleet had approached Malta two or three times threatening invasion with increased air raids. Even when going to the cinema we were loaded up with rifles, revolvers, gas masks and tin hats. I’m thinking its time I had a change so myself and my crew put in to crew one of the rescue pinnaces. Lucky for us we got Pinnace 1244. The best of the four. I was also more than pleased to keep my own crew with me. I’d now have to work with Flight Lieutenant Cook, skipper. More crew were allotted as pinnaces were expected to stay at sea for longer intervals. Therefore, a double bank crew was necessary. Crew was now Sergeant Middleton and coxswains myself and four deckhands, Stan Oakes, Ron Whittaker, Alan Clarkson and Anthony Griffiths. There were also two wireless operators, two fitters, one medic and the skipper. First we went to Sliema opposite Valetta for a short while and set up a base. Then to St Paul’s as our main base. From there we set up another base at Dwejra Bay, Gozo on the West Coast as a forward base for Sicily. We went out on a rendezvous some thirty miles off Gozo. Twenty four hours on twenty four hours off. Then back to St Paul’s Bay for stores and fuel. Dwejra base was just a rocky inlet about four hundred yards across both ways and we laid temporary moorings. A westerly gale blew up one night and the mooring started dragging. We had to make a run for it out in the full gale. This was a rough trip back to St Paul’s as ever I’d known. One good thing about St Paul’s Bay there were no, there were no bull or parades. Slowly the war was moving on. The food situation was slightly better. We did all our own cooking on Pinnace 1244. Our favourite being rice pudding with chocolate. Pairing up and taking it in turns Stan Oake and myself made a good team at this. A few months of this passed when the four pinnaces were ordered back to base in North Africa. This trip was a good break for all of us being away two days each way. The first night during a lightning storm we almost ran a submarine down. One minute it was close to the port bow. The next minute it was gone. We never did know whether the submarine was German, Italian or British. We were supposed to pick up two high speed rescue launches but only one was available. It had just been lifted off a merchant ship. It took about a week to get it ready for sea. We lived on the pinnace during the week as there was no available billets. We set off from Malta on the Rescue Launch Number 2606. It was rather crowded as four pinnace crews had to be accommodated. HSL 2606 was a new type of launch with a very high superstructure and wheelhouse. It was sixty eight feet long and eighteen feet on the beam although it had the same Napier engines. Due to increased length and weight these launches were a little slower. Twenty eight to thirty knots but they were very good sea boats although they could be a bit awkward coming alongside if the wind caught you. These launches were nicknamed Hants and Dorset after the famous double decker buses. I grew to like these launches in the next year. We stopped enroute the first night at Bizerte and the second night at Pantelleria, got plastered with local wine that night and wasn’t feeling too bright the next morning. At 06:00 hours we anchored, up anchored and set off on the last leg for Malta. I was down for the second trip on the wheel 08:00 to 10:00 hours. We were only doing two hour spells on the wheel as we had a few extra coxswains. I felt rough and sick but managed just to make out the skipper said something about convoys needed to zigzag but we didn’t. It’s funny how you regret the morning after the night before. My own crew went out together that night. Not often that we got the chance. We arrived back at Malta and I put in for a second coxswain berth along with Stan Oakes and we were both surprised to be given our places on the crew of 2606 bound for Sicily and Italy. Ron Whittaker, another of my old crew managed to get with us so I had a couple of the best deck hands possible with me. The first coxswain was Sergeant Norman Bulmer. Now we had a full crew and set off for Sicily. We didn’t know just where until orders were opened and found it was to be Palermo on the northwest corner. By this time Sicily was fully in Allied hands. The north coast was getting close to the German activity again. We had a change of skipper. A Flight Lieutenant Horton relieved the first skipper and he turned out to be one of the best all around skippers. On a trip out of Palermo we were just cruising along on a moderate sea when we got caught with a giant wave that stood us almost on our transom. Then when the bows came down into the trough with such a bang it was like falling off a tall building. We took up all cabin floorboards and checked all the bilges for possible damage. We thought the planking had sprung but under the forepeak it turned out to have have been due to a half opened hatch on the forepeak which was full of sea water. This was soon removed by turning on the self-bailers. Not many launches would have stood a wave of that size. Our crew was comprised of twelve in all. Four deckhands, Stan Oakes, Ron Whittaker, Danny Morgan, Brian Mander, First Cox Sergeant Norman Bulmer, Second Cox Corporal Bilton, myself. Engineers Sergeant Garner and Corporal Paddy not known. Medic LAC, skipper, Flight Lieutenant Ben Houghton. Also wireless operator Eddie and WM Plum. Some names have gone into the mist.
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Christmas 1943 Palermo, Sicily. For the first time in ages we were well provided with food and plentiful rations. We managed to obtain rations from the RAF and Navy but also some from the Yanks. At Palermo we had two launches HSL 171 and HSL 2606. 171 was of the older whaleback type. That was a joint crew of twenty four. It wasn’t a proper base. Just a pier and an old brick building. This we turned into a cook house and diner. The engineers between them set up a good coal fired cooking arrangement including an oven. We paired up to do the cooking. Some lads just couldn’t cook no how so Stan Oakes and myself did most of it when possible. The cooking some of the lads dished up was uneatable so come Christmas Eve Stan, Ron Whitaker and myself went on a tour of both Yankee ships and our Navy ships on the scrounge for whatever we could get to make a Christmas dinner for twenty four lads including two skippers. This turned out very successful. Turkey and all the trimmings, Christmas pudding and all that. A bottle of beer each and a tot of rum. All in all it wasn’t a bad do. Better than Christmas in Malta. Shortly after Christmas we started moving up the west coast of Italy starting with the island of Ischia. Then Salerno, Naples etcetera until Anzio and then up as far as Civitavecchia. Anzio before and after January 1944. Forward base Anzio, rear base island of Ponza was for maintenance and rest and refuelling. This then was mainly for two weeks at Anzio and then three days at Ponza. That was until the middle of June. Things that happened at Anzio were almost unbelievable. From Anzio or Ponza we had to cover a large sea area which included Naples to as far as north of Rome as Civitavecchia. Anzio was a mixed up hell hole of changeable weather conditions. Calm seas and scorching sun then heavy storms following on. There was also terrific activity from German bombers and fighters. There was much sinking of ships and beach strafing. We arrived at Anzio for the first time about mid-day on the 22nd of January 1944 in calm seas and hot sunshine. Everything was nice and quiet. We thought at the time this isn’t too bad. After mooring up in harbour the skipper came back and the orders were to anchor just off the beach head. We were just finishing our meal when the bombers came and livened things up. We knew then that things would be rougher than we’d expected. We were bombed every day at odd times day and night. But the mid-day meal raid was an everyday never missed German onslaught. That was when most damage and sinking took place. There were two launches at Anzio. A duty launch at anchor on the beachhead and the standby launch moored inside the harbour. Which was the safest spot I never could tell. At anchor you were wide open to Messerschmitt 109s, glider bombing and strafing and in the harbour it was the heavier Junkers 88 and 87s. To complement that heavy long range guns from the surrounding hills would open up and those shells landed anywhere and everywhere. One night in harbour the bollard we were moored to was shelled and never seen again. We were very lucky that time. About this time our first coxswain Sergeant Norman Bulmer was taken ill with appendicitis and had to go to the field hospital for an operation. This left myself as acting coxswain unpaid and still a corporal. However, I coped ok. My first time handling launch 2606 shook me rigid. Bringing it in alongside in Anzio Harbour we had a far corner berth that took some manoeuvring to get into. I really expected a struggle and go ahead in the stern quite a lot to make it but lady luck was with me and we slipped in no bother. I gave, ‘Finished with engines,’ to the engine room and that was that. I’d done hours and hours on the wheel at sea steering compass courses but coming alongside is different. I found that the launch of sixty eight feet handled more like a seaplane tender of thirty eight feet. I was to enjoy the rest of my time on 2606 as acting first cox. The only thing I didn’t like was the paperwork that came with the job. Now, there were a few incidents that stick in my mind in and out of Anzio. On patrol one very dark night in calm seas we were suddenly fired on by another vessel. We gave the signal of the day and this was disregarded so we thought we were under attack from a German e-boat. All we could do was make a run for it because our machine guns were no match for what was coming at us. We managed to slip away in the darkness with nothing less than a few chips of wood missing off the gunnel. Next morning we found out we’d been shot up by an American PT boat. Our skipper was furious at this as the PT boat had not answered the signal of the day. We had given it with a verey pistol and the aldis lamp. The next night we went out looking and waiting and sure enough we came across the same PT boat and gave them a scene they’d never forget. We did a bit more wood chipping than they did. Nothing was every said about the incident so I suppose they got the message. The Americans always seemed to be very trigger happy. The HLS doing turnabout duty with us at Anzio was I think 186 or 171. I’m not sure which. Anyhow, it was out on a rescue trip one night when visibility was bad and on the way back to base it ran aground on rocks just north of Anzio and was then shot up by an American gun emplacement. A launch did manage to float itself off the rocks but it was in sinking condition and had to be run ashore south of Anzio on a sandy beach. I think it was a total write off. A write off but it was probably used as spare parts for other launches. It was still up the beach when we finally left Anzio. The same beach was used by DWKS, amphibious vehicles coming in loaded up from the cargo vessels laid off the beach. Mid-day and the usual air raids. We were at anchor just off the beach head awaiting orders as first duty boat. A Naval motor launch had taken over second duty Air Sea Rescue as emergency relief. Our anchoring position was actually about two hundred yards clear of the cruiser Spartan, an anti ack ack and special duties cruiser designed for beach head landings and still on the Allies secrets list. An ME109 came in low and dropped a glider bomb which hit the Spartan down one of her funnels. This was a death blow to the cruiser and within three or four minutes she was gone. I can still remember seeing the Marines that manned the ack ack guns firing away up to the moment that the cruiser turned over and sank. Many lives were saved but most engine room and boiler room crew were lost. Two American Liberty ships were also bombed and set fire during the same raid. This was a particulary bad day for the Anzio landings. Shortly after this the cruiser Penelope was bombed and sunk along with two hospital ships. A day or two later we were at our usual anchoring position of the beach head when along came the mid-day raid. There were far too many ships on the beach head. The Germans couldn’t miss. This time two cargo ships, one American and one British were hit. The British one caught fire but was saved. The American ship blew up scattering forty four gallon drums and a hundred octane petrol in the air. One of these fell on our foredeck and for a few seconds we thought it was going to explode so we swiftly rolled it overboard. There were no survivors from the American ship as it just disappeared. Nothing left but bits and pieces. We had a hole in the foredeck to patch. On another occasion we were second duty boat and laid in the harbour alongside. A nice warm morning about 10:20 hours I was up the top checking guns and turrets when our second spark shouted that there was a crate of whisky floating past. Second sparks was a new young wireless operator mechanic and had only been with us a couple of weeks so naturally we took no notice. He then shouted again. By heck he was right. A cardboard carton containing six bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky was fished out. It just ran out at half a bottle each. Our second sparks was quite popular after that. All sorts of equipment was washed up on the beach from sunken ships. 2606 was better equipped than most rescue launches after a spell at Anzio. In addition, plenty of American, American tinned food was fished out of the sea. From starvation in Malta we were now living like lords. The only thing missing was fresh vegetables. American tinned food came mainly in half gallon and full gallon sizes. One day we opened a gallon sized tin of peanut butter. None of us had ever seen peanut butter before and we opened it thinking it was margarine. Well, when we saw this dirty brown stuff with oil floating on top we thought it had gone bad and threw it overboard. Later we found out what it was and started to use it on our hard tack biscuits. Some other American foods were tinned hash, bacon, potatoes, mixed vegetables, chicken, minced meat and puddings both savoury and sweet. The time we came, the time we came though when we longed for some good old English bully beef. All American ships were dry. No beer or spirits. No tons of, but tons of fruit and Coca Cola.
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We visit Rome almost. There was a rescue call out for a Spitfire pilot in a position half mile west of Rome. It was mid-morning and the weather was bright, sunny and flat calm. We left Anzio at about 10:30 hours with an ETA for search position of 11:45. I’m on the wheel steering an easterly course and running it in towards the shore at the mouth of the river, the River Tiber on which Rome stands. The lookout in the forward turrets spots a yellow fighter dinghy about a mile ahead. The skipper decides to carry on at a reduced speed. This was to cut down the bow wave. Bow wave at speed and stern wake always gave us away to both enemy planes and shore batteries. We were now approaching the dinghy and we get alongside to find it empty. We hove, hove to for a while while the skipper came to a decision whether to risk a square search or not. We couldn’t go further in shore so decided to square search to the west of the dinghy position. A message was sent to base of our intention and position. We were on the first leg of square search when the shore batteries opened up. Everyone was eyes forward on the lookout for the missing pilot and hadn’t noticed yet that we were being fired on. Stan Oakes in the rear turret was looking aft and had spotted the shell fall and was intending to leave the turret and come to the wheelhouse and inform us about being shelled. We couldn’t hear anything due to engine noise. Stan Oakes caught the toggle of his Mae West life jacket in the doorway of the turret. His life jacket then inflated and he was stuck half in and half out of the turret. He had to deflate before he could get free and lost valuable time. This may have only been a half a minute but that was time we couldn’t afford. Finally, Stan burst into the wheelhouse but by now we all knew about it as the Germans were finding the range alright. Skipper gave the orders to the engine room for full emergency revs of two thousand four hundred plus. These revs could only be maintained for thirty minutes at most. From then on it was due west flat out, hard of port and then starboard. We kept this up for some forty five minutes before we were out of range. I was almost on the point of collapse because at that speed and full helm orders for forty five minutes was the heaviest work I’d done since joining 2606. I stayed on the wheel until we reached base at Anzio by which time I was just beginning to get my strength back. As soon as we’d moored up I sank below for a double tot of rum. Skipper gave orders for a single tot issue to all the crew. I slipped Stan an extra tot out of my own bottle. When 2606 finally made it back to Ischia a couple of months later a hundred and forty seven pieces of shrapnel were dug out of the hull so it had been pretty close. I always thought 2606 was a lucky ship by the different things we got away with. One day in May we had orders to stand by for evacuation of the bridge head. The Germans had made a push and were approaching the perimeter of the bridge head. The American Army were falling back mainly due to malaria and they’d not taken notice of the British warning and lost half their Army. British Guard Regiments were rushed up from Naples and Salerno and it was touch and go for about a week before the Germans retreated behind, back behind the hills. They then turned their heavy guns on to the harbour beach head. At night you could actually see the flashpoints as the guns were fired. These guns were on rail track and moved under cover when not being fired. We received orders one morning to go about ten miles south of Anzio to look for British aircrew that had been spotted on the beach. When we reached the position close to inshore we could see nothing so skipper sends our rubber dinghy ashore under the charge of Norman, and sergeant engineer complete with side arms and verey pistol. There was still nothing to be seen. We dropped anchor to await results. Green for ok and red for standby to exit smartly. Then the red verey light went up. We shortened our anchor cable to just up and down and restarted the engines. By this time the two sergeants were paddling back like the clappers. There was a German foot patrol approaching from inland. We got both on board and the dinghy and set off flat out with myself on the wheel again. Some rifle fire followed us but nothing to worry about. It was obvious the air crew had been taken prisoner as some of their equipment was laid on the beach near bushes. We were still doing our fair share of rescue callouts but most seemed to be false alarms. We were also still running messages around the fleet and the bridgehead. Our three days at Ponza were a Godsend to us although this time we had some hull patching to do below the waterline. This meant [unclear] by loading heavy drums of petrol on one side to enable the other side to dry out and fix copper tingles over the damaged areas. This had to be done to both port and starboard as a temporary measure. Good news on our return to Anzio beach head. Monte Cassino had finally fallen and the push to Rome now started. Rome fell to the allies within the week. The second day after the fall we got stood down and skipper got permission to let half the crew go to Rome for a day off. Myself, Stan Oakes, Plum and three others set off in an American truck for Rome. It was a terrible rough ride as the roads were full of filled in shell holes. We had to stand and hang on as hard as we could. It was worse than being in a rough sea. The whole way to Rome was strewn with knocked out German eighty eight millimetre Tiger tanks. I must have seen hundreds. Then the truck had to cross a river using a rubber pontoon bridge. That was very dodgy as it swayed all over the place. So we got to Rome with our cameras at the ready but we didn’t have much film. I’d now acquired an Agfa Billy Record Camera. A good camera but the film was ex-RAF aircraft stuff. Not really for use in ordinary cameras. We had a really good time in Rome with plenty of food and drink. Although seeing as the Germans had only just pulled out where all the food and drink came from was a mystery. Even the shops were full of all sorts of things from watches to motor cars and trinkets of all kinds. About 20:00 hours we started to look for a lift back to Anzio which was another American truck. The journey in the dark was unspeakably rough. Mind you the driver did well just on dipped headlights. We’d only got one day as we had orders to move north and follow the Army up the coast to Civitavecchia. We never saw Anzio again. Civitavecchia, Italy. The west coast. It was an uneventful journey from Anzio to Civitavecchia. A sixty mile trip north in blazing sun and flat seas. Eighteen hundred revs all the way. No signs of war at all. No ships or aircraft just us in 2606 on an empty sea. We’d been allocated a berth in the dock at Civitavecchia but the quaysides were all taken up with concrete blocks roughly one yard cubes left by the Germans to make unloading of ships very difficult. Civitavecchia wasn’t too good for stores and supplies. Especially paraffin for cooking and washing. Our first engineer Sergeant Garner rigged up a water heating system that was very efficient but also very dangerous. For a day or two we were all afraid to go anywhere near it. The system ran on petrol gas. Two fifty gallon drums. One full of water to be heated. The other full of hundred octane petrol ran to the heater. The water drum was fixed on top of a concrete block with the drum top cut out and a tap in the bottom. The other drum was set lower down on the quayside. A copper pipe bent into two coils was fixed into the drum bottom. This just allowed the gas to escape but not raw petrol. The engineer then used a long pole dipped in petrol to light the burner. Dangerous or not we had plenty of hot water for domestic and cooking uses. The system was turned off when we put to sea and every night for safety reasons. I didn’t go near it too often. I just couldn't trust it. The engineer had also rigged the shower system at Palermo, Sicily but that was quite safe. Just sandpit and petrol. This was also lit with a very long pole. When on standby duty for rescue we’d laid, laid two at anchor in the bay as usual. Drill ready for a quick getaway. Civitavecchia as a town was a shambles. Completely destroyed with no sign of any population. We’d seen this sort of thing so many times before. The American Army warned us not to approach any buildings due to most being booby trapped. We’d already seen this at Anzio. We were at sea one morning when five American aircraft, Marylands, medium sized bombers approached at about two thousand feet. We were happy with this and flashed the day’s call sign. The Americans answered by dropping their unwanted fuel overload tanks all about us. Two tanks from each aircraft. We were very lucky as had any of the tanks hit us we would have gone up in smoke. I’ve no doubt the Americans thought it was a good joke. Our skipper was furious and had it entered in the log and made a full report to the American Air Force. Civitavecchia was much quieter than Anzio and there was not too much shipping in the bay and not much air activity although we had a large area to cover for Air Sea Rescue. About forty miles north and south and whatever was required west. July 1944 posting back to UK. We were at anchor sunning ourselves on deck awaiting any urgent calls, drinking coffee and yarning away. I happened to look towards the shore as we were being called up by the Naval Signalling Station. Our call sign was flashing away at us. I read the following message. “Posted to UK Corporal Bilton, LAC Mander, LAC Morgan, LAC Oake, LAC Whitaker. End of message.” I shouted below for sparks to come on deck and to ask for a signal repeat. The message was confirmed, entered on the signal pad and taken to our skipper Flight Lieutenant Howden. I didn’t think he would let us go until our reliefs arrived from Ischia which was the nearest base but he went straight ashore and arranged transport for us to Naples. No way had we expected a UK posting. What a surprise for us lucky ones. We’d been away since September 1941. Almost three years. Sergeant Norman Bulmer was a bit upset at losing half of his crew in one go and called us lucky so and so’s. Skipper called me into his cabin and opened a bottle of champagne and wished me luck and a safe passage home. Norman arranged for a tot each before we went ashore. We managed to signal a Navy picket boat to come and pick us up and take us ashore with all our kit. When we got ashore I looked back to where 2606 was laid at anchor thinking of all the times we’d been together both good and bad and then a heat haze [coughs] a heat haze seemed to cover the ship and she was gone. I was a little bit sad as 2606 had always been a lucky ship to us all. By 14:00 hours we were in this American truck on our way to Naples Embarkation Camp some a hundred and thirty miles south. We arrived in Naples around about 18:30 hours and looked in at the guard room. Accommodation was all tents. We were given a tent number and that was it. The tent was empty. Just the bare floor. Luckily for us we had two RAF blankets each. This was our bed for the next week. The camp was massive and fully tented. I don’t remember seeing a building of any sort. The cookhouse, orderly room and guard room were big tents. We had nothing to do other than watch and wait. At roll call every morning you sat in a big square waiting. Waiting. Waiting for your name to be called out for the next day’s draft for embarkation. Our turn didn’t come until the sixth day. After roll call we did Naples every day and almost ran out of money. Naples wasn’t very nice. Fairly dirty and terribly run down. We went to the main theatre one night but it wasn’t much cop. Come to think of it we went to the theatre at Salerno. It wasn’t supposed to be serious but we couldn’t help laughing all the way through as there was a singer, a well-endowed lady with a mic just in the top of her low cut dress. Her dress fading with every forward movement [laughs] very entertaining though. The next day we had a rather early breakfast, got our kit together and stood by for roll call and board trucks to take us to Naple’s docks. We got quite a shock on arrival at the docks as we were almost last in the long line of troops, Navy and Air Force all waiting to board a ship to the UK. The dock and the bay were full of ships of all sizes. We’d no idea which ship we were for. At about 10:00 hours we were sitting on a dockside, on the dockside and just moving a few yards at a time when a fleet of trucks came by all covered up. This turned out to be Italian prisoners of war. Around five thousand of them. They were all loaded on to the ship RMS Orantes ahead of us. It was 17:30 hours before we got on board. It had been a rotten hot dusty day with nothing to eat or drink since leaving the Embarkation Camp. Then they dished up kippers for our tea. We got one mug of tea and that was that until the next morning. We were sleeping in hammocks again. RMS Orontes was a P&O passenger ship of twenty two thousand tons and with the Italian prisoners and British service personal some eight thousand people were on board. Italians were cordoned off in a separate part of the ship with no contact between them and us. The RAF were berthed right down in the bottom of the ship all the way up forward in the ships forward section next to the chain lockers. Hammocks above the mess tables once again and we had quite a crush at night to get everyone in. All hammocks had to be rolled up before breakfast each morning. There were four or five flights of wooden stairs down to our berth. Food always arrived ready cold but still eatable. It was the usual system. Your mess stewards had to go and bring the food from the galley. The first morning at sea there was a boat drill but not enough boats for all. But we were told not to worry as there were plenty of Carley floats. Each bod was issued with a life jacket, kapok filled. These were used as pillows on our hammocks. A small electric light was clipped to each life jack with a battery in a separate container and the whole thing was waterproofed. I’d seen these lights before but only on aircrew. We didn’t have them in the Ajax going to Malta. It was twelve and a half days to the UK in convoy with nothing to do. No duties, no work, absolutely nothing to ease the mind. We couldn’t get ourselves on any of the ship’s guns. We could walk the deck in certain parts of the ship but orders were any enemy alert we were to disappear immediately to our berth and stay there until the alarm was over. Not much chance for us if anything happened like the odd torpedo or two. Only one incident at sea. We were sat around down below yarning and carning when suddenly the whole place filled with smoke. We couldn’t see or breathe. I thought I was going to choke to death and we all made a rush for the stairs. How the stairs stood all our weight I don’t know. There was well over a hundred of us on the stairs together. We finally reached the deck where the smoke was not so thick. We were all still choking and heaving eyes burning and running. Most of us in a state of collapse just lying anywhere on the deck. What had happened was a submarine scare had been alerted by the convoy and the signal to make smoke sent to all our ships. Our ship, its smoke located in the foxhole head and it had its had thus gone straight in the [cal] ventilators which were trained facing forwards to catch the breeze. Smoke had then come down into the four foot compartment at full blast. We had to stay on deck until the smoke cleared from down below. This sort of smoke had a dreadful smell and taste to it and took a long time to wear off. Funny but no one thought to put their gas masks on. Had we done so I’m sure we would have saved ourselves a lot of misery. No further incidents and we arrived safely at Gourock, Scotland on the Clyde twelve and a half days after departing Naples. The next day, around the 20th of July we made ready for disembarkation into Clyde ferryboats to take us to the shore at Gourock. The ferries in use were old paddle wheelers. They carried about five or six hundred at a time. A train was waiting on the pier. This took an hour to load up. It was the longest train by far I’d seen on all my travels. Once again the destination was unknown. The train stopped only once and that was at Carlisle. We weren’t allowed off the train but tea, sandwiches and wads and rock cakes were brought to us. Twenty minutes and we were on our way again. Now everyone is trying to guess where we are bound for. The two top choices were Padgate and Cardington but we ended up at Blackpool. We were there a full week and never saw the sun once. Most of the waiting was for our second kit bags to arrive from the ship as these had been stowed in the hold. It must have taken some sorting out but it all duly arrived at Blackpool safely. Blackpool was cold and we certainly felt it. The wind went right through us. There was no bull and no parades and we were in civvy billets but they were not very comfortable. This was just for sleeping. During the week we were completely rekitted. New everything. I had a job to hang on to my best blue tunic. I didn’t want to part with it as I’d had it tailored privately. That tunic I had throughout the whole of my service and the buttons were polished almost smooth. I must mention this the Marks and Spencer of Blackpool was used by the RAF as their clothing store and another large store was the cookhouse and dining area. This may have been Woolworths. I’m not sure. Blackpool apart from the cold weather was a nice relaxing week. Out on the town every night, mostly pubbing it but quite a lot of entertainment shows on the piers. I can’t remember now what shows they were but at the time we enjoyed them. Kit had arrived and we’d all been paid up to date. A nice lump sum of back pay and six weeks leave pay. Everything signed up and cleared. We five who had been together for so long and seen so much had a last drink and parted on Blackpool Station hoping to be posted to the same unit again. We five, Stan Oakes, Mander, Morgan, Whittaker and myself, I’m sure we all felt a bit sad at the parting. Halfway through my leave my posting came through for Ayr in Scotland. I was not too pleased with this and got the map out to see where the place was. I couldn’t do anything about it so I forgot about it until my leave was finished. I’m stood on Glasgow station waiting for the local train to Ayr and hoping against hope I might bump into some of my old crew. This was not to be. The Ayr train came in and just two of us got on. The other lad was a marine fitter also posted to Ayr. We were both browned off at being posted miles away from home. Arrival at Ayr and no transport laid on to take us to the base. There was no military set up to help us so we had to hump our kit and it was shank’s pony for about a mile from Ayr station to the RAF base near the harbour on the River Ayr. We walked into the camp. No one challenged us on entry which to us was most unusual. Dumped our kit and weighed up the place. It was a small place of Nissen huts. No guardroom and there didn’t seem to be anyone to report to. We tried to get a meal but just missed it. The cookhouse closed a half an hour before we arrived. We strolled out to the camp and found the beach and lazed about on the sands until it was time to return to tea. With a decent hot meal and no one bothered us so we organized ourselves in to bed, our beds in to empty Nissen huts. We were both browned off at being on the point of miserable but the situation went on for three days. Meals at the camp and lazing on the beach. Then we reported to a flight sergeant at the orderly room. Now things really took off. We were marched to a small office in front of the CO, a Flight Lieutenant Wright and what he said to us couldn’t be repeated. We were in for it good and proper. The marine fitter was posted the next day and I was detailed to look after a seaplane tender up on the slip until further notice. My job then was to refettle this seaplane tender from bow to stern. This was of course as a form of unofficial punishment. The CO obviously couldn’t take it any further or there would have been an enquiry into the slack running of the camp. I was three weeks up that slip but didn’t do much work. After three days I’d not been mentioned on the daily routine orders for any duty detail. Then suddenly I was sent to the COs office. By now I couldn’t have cared less what happened. But it turned out pretty good. It seemed that the charts folio had not been kept up to date for ages and I was to bring them up to date. Sounded like a tiddly job at first. What a shock I got when I opened up the folio. There were Notices to Mariners going back at least eighteen months none of which had been applied to the charts. This was better than a slip up. I sorted out the local area charts first. That was Stranraer in the south and Ardrossan to the north. It had to be done by date starting with the earliest first. Chart corrections is a tricky job at the best of times. Every new [unclear] had to be marked and all movements of navigation buoys correctly drawn or stuck on the charts. It was a very interesting and good practice for my navigational standard. As the job came to an end I was put down for sea duties and took over Pinnace 1333. The Marine Section based at Ayr was a Torpedo Recovery Unit. This was new to me. There was a separate Air Sea Rescue Unit down near the harbour entrance. It consisted of just one rescue launch. The torpedo base on the River Ayr had four general purpose pinnaces. Three Perkin’s engines and two seaplane tenders one two hundred types with two Meadow’s engines. The other a broad beam two Perkins engines and then an old fuelling barge. I’m down for duty coxswain the next morning and not sure what was expected of me. I had to be down at Turnberry Point to stand by for Air Sea Rescue or any other emergency that could occur. Turnberry air base was situated right on the edge of the coast and a duty pinnace had to be out there on standby at all times during flying. Pinnaces were sixty feet long complete with masts and derrick. Seaplane tenders were thirty seven feet or forty two feet long. The next day at 06:00 hours before setting off I’m looking at the river which was in full spate i.e. a load of fresh coming down at a good eight to ten knots and I’m thinking that it was going to be very tricky. We started the engines and I’d let them warm through and then I give the order to let go. This was my mistake. In seconds we were being rushed down river stern first. I put the engines, all three in a head. This checked the stern way but then we were swept into a Navy pinnace and put a great hole in the foxhole just above the water line. Not much I could do about it. There was no damage to my pinnace and I had to be in position off Turnberry Point on time. There were four Navy pinnaces moored abreast. Had there been two abreast as there should have been I might just have slipped clear without touching. Eight Navy lads were sleeping in the foxhole of each pinnace and a good few came out on deck with only long johns on. That was it. My crew started laughing at such a funny sight. Mind you if my deck hand had put a fender in at the point of collision we might have avoided the damage. After the full day at standby on Turnberry Point I returned to base and had to report, a report to be made out in triplicate and a drawing to do. I’m in it up to my neck at this place and wondering what else could happen. The CO surprised me by calling me to the office to check my report and asked if I’d forgotten anything and wanted a verbal explanation. When I mentioned about the Naval lads coming out on deck he had a laugh about it and then said my report was fine and he’d get it off to HQ at Turnberry. Now, I never heard anything more about the collision. You can guess what the Navy lads started calling me. Crasher Bill. I’m settling down a bit now and putting in many full days at sea. Mostly in charge of Pinnace 1333. Now and then I took out the Seaplane Tender 445 but I usually lay in Maiden’s Harbour with that as they are not too good at hove to. All arrangements had to now be made to be married on October the 26th. I’d seven days leave booked. Everything in order and waiting for the day to come. I never managed a seat on the train from Glasgow to Leeds so I made a wooden box, carrying box complete with handle and lock, it would be about two feet by one foot by one foot and used it instead of my kitbag so I could sit it out on the train corridors. Ayr to Glasgow, Leeds to Hull was a most boring journey. I’ve lost count how many times I’ve travelled that route. The wedding goes off nicely and I’m rushing about to the main Post Office to send telegrams to Aunt Win and Uncle George at Lincoln when I was stopped by two RAF SPs, Special Police for the RAF. I had to show my leave pass and when that was found to be in order they then got me for not having my cap on and a couple of buttons undone on my tunic. I tried to explain that I’d just got married but the so and so’s booked me for that. I didn’t think too much about it. My new wife and I went off for a few days at Bridlington. Doris Gibson was now Doris Bilton. This strangely took some getting used to as we’d know each other since being ten years old. I arrived back at Ayr a little bit miserable naturally but plenty of duty and sea time to occupy me. A week later I’m called to the office and confronted with a charge sheet for being seen in public inappropriately dressed. This seemed to be almost impossible to believe that such a charge had followed me from Hull to Ayr. I was to go in front of the group captain, the CO of Turnberry which was our parent unit. Each morning for a full week I was to go by transport to Turnberry to answer this charge. For six days I was hanging about in the HQ block as the CO hadn’t time to see me. When he finally did see me on the 7th he gave me a right old rollicking and entered a reprimand on my documents. So it was over and I’m back on duty again. I must explain now that the work we carried out from Ayr, RAF Turnberry was a flying base for training both Navy and Air Force pilots to drop torpedoes and sink enemy ships. Aircraft torpedoes were the 18th inch one ton type. Aircraft came over and dropped them at the target ship. This was an old four funnel American destroyer or a grand old rather large steam yacht called the Heliopolis. The drop usually consisted of five Beaufort RAF planes or five Navy planes. The target ship has to try and avoid being hit by torpedoes as they travel at around forty knots and weighing a ton can go right through a ship’s plates and often did. Our job was to stand by rescue with one pinnace and three other pinnaces to chase after and to recover all torpedoes dropped. It was a serious crime to lose one and if we did we would have to start sweeping for it. If they were dropped at too steep an angle they could get stuck in the seabed. When torpedoes finished running they were supposed to float upright and a flare of coloured smoke ignited showing us where it had finished it’s run. It was then had to be lifted out of the sea and stowed in the pinnace hold. We could only carry six stowed in special racks three, two and one. This could at times be tricky and dangerous. If there was the slightest lop on you’d have a one ton torpedo swinging about like crazy on the end of a derrick. It was a work of art to get them on board without doing damage. I had a good crew though and we worked together as a team. A mid-day meal had to be cooked in between drops. Being coxswain I had no time to involve myself in this but we had two of our four deckhands who became, became quite expert at cooking and dished up some lovely grub. Potatoes and vegetables were always cooked in sea water. They were smashing. Just perfect. When the weather was good it was great fun charging after torpedoes. The one boring job was to stand by Air Sea Rescue part. You just followed the target ship all the time a quarter of a mile astern and keeping a full radio watch. The three pinnaces chasing torpedoes were in radio touch with the target ship. We used to have a bit of fun on the way back to base. Three pinnaces going flat out abreast with a few yards between each and bombarding each other with potatoes. We slipped up one day and got a side wheelhouse window cracked. Windows were made of Perspex so just cracked but didn’t shatter. I didn’t report it until we’d been out in rough sea and put it down to that. The area covered for standby was from Troon in the north to Girvan in the south and westwards towards Kintyre. Torpedo drops were anywhere within this area according to weather conditions but the favourite area was between Turnberry Point and Girvan. Torpedoes were lifted from pinnace holds by mobile crane. The high speed rescue launch was always on standby but for more general flying activities that was standby at base control of Coastal Command. Turnberry Point had a system of light buoys laid out in the shape of a funnel. This tapered towards the shore showing pilots the lead in towards the runway. There was always a bit of sea running around the point. We tried a time or two to hang on to the last buoy but somehow this made us a bit queasy. We were put into Maiden’s Harbour so as to be able to fix a hot meal then and out again. Slipped up one day. Put into Maiden’s Harbour, had our mid-day meal and we were sat around in the foxhole when a fisherman came on board and said, ‘You’ll be aground in a few minutes if you don’t shift.’ We just made it but scraped the mud at the bottom of the harbour. Another few minutes and we would have been stuck for almost twelve hours. Next time in Maiden’s I left a drum of diesel out for the fishermen. I knew they were on a right ration. The snibby fisher boats usually kept us well supplied with fresh fish in exchange for a drop of diesel oil. I usually took a parcel of fish when going on leave. Two other places we put into. Girvan which was a nice small fishing village and a National Lifeboat Station and the other place was Ailsa Craig, a small rocky island which just had a boarding stage and a lighthouse. The lighthouse keeper and his family lived on the rock and ran a small farm mostly vegetables and goats. We usually were offered tea with goat’s milk and a few small goat’s cheeses which were quite strongly flavoured. The welcome given to us RAF sailors was most friendly and kind than could be imagined. I remember one old lad who looked to be about ninety years old telling us to bring our crew aboard so he could show us how to make rope fenders and other things such as rope mats and decorative rope work. After that when we lost fenders I didn’t have to report it. We just made more with old worn out rope. During our visits to harbours we were always in touch with a constant radio watch. When the weather was calm and warm the wireless operator would rig up an extension speaker so he could lay about on deck and take in the sun. We were out one morning at 06:00 hours on standby flying off Turnberry Point. The weather was foggy and cold but with a flat sea. I had Pinnace 1333 so we were stooging about roughly doing five miles square when flying started. I thought at the time that it was a bit dodgy and kept the crew on top line and out on deck maintaining a lookout on port starboard bow and stern. Somehow, I was unusually anxious about the weather and flying. It wasn’t a torpedo exercise. It was Beaufighters doing a hit and run practice. It got to about mid-morning. The sun was breaking through the fog when we heard a terrific bang and out of the fog came two Beaufighters locked together. They crashed into the sea some fifty yards off the bow. I was directly on the scene of the crash but both planes went straight down and nothing was found other than a canvas map case and a green glass ball. The fog was lifting rapidly and this made searching easier but there wasn’t much point in doing a square search as I was circling the crash position now clearly marked by an oil slick. We’d sent a radio message to Turnberry flying base and our base at Ayr. We were to remain on position until other pinnaces arrived to extend the search. This has to be done even though we knew there was by now no hope at all for any survivors from the four crew members of the two aircraft. Sometime in the afternoon the search was called off when we got the RTB signal. The next day at the same time, 06:00 hours we were off to Turnberry Point and the weather was clear and calm when we noticed an unusual sight. Both the two ships the Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were passing each other in opposite directions just south of Arran. This was about six miles northwest of our position. It just had to be one of the finest sights we’d ever seen. I set course towards the two ships for us all to have a closer look at the world’s two largest sailing ships close together. Then we got a shock as the backwash that hit us must have been six feet high and continued for a mile or so. All I could do then was to keep bow on until it eased. I didn’t fancy trying to turn away as this would have put me stern on into it. I’d often heard about this sort of backwash from large ships but it was my first experience of it. We took a green, a green one over the bows and had some flooding in both engine rooms and wheelhouse. A starboard engine suddenly stopped and wouldn’t restart. The electronic system had got wet. We started pumping out and when things settled down a bit managed to start the starboard engine on drag by going flat out on the two serviceable engines and then putting the starboard engine in head gear. Although there was no war on in this part of Scotland we certainly had a few hectic moments.
[recording paused]
It’s now the summer of 1945 and a sudden increase in flying and torpedo dropping came on. All coxswains were called to the COs office for a briefing on a new fortnight torpedo dropping exercise by jointly by Navy and RAF aircraft recovery vessels and we were to be based at Campbelltown on the southern part of the Kintyre peninsula. We were to live on board for the two weeks until the exercise was completed. Special Navy recovering ships like coasters were to be with us on the drops and we had now, and we had to tow recovered torpedoes to them to be lifted from the sea as they had special low bulwarks and decks to make lifting torpedoes out much safer and easier. Especially when there was a bit of a sea running. We towed three torpedoes each at a time which was about as much as could be coped with by the recovery vessels. Practice torpedoes were quite expensive and not to be damaged. There were four RAF and four Navy pinnaces working together. Six on recovery and two on standby. One behind each of the two target ships Heliopolis and the old American four funnel job. I’ve forgotten its name. With recovering and towing and waiting to go alongside the recovery vessel the two pinnaces together it was quite a problem making sure no ropes got snagged in propellers. Some rivalry started up between the Navy and RAF pinnaces about how many torpedoes were recovered. The Navy were tough and serious and made it obvious they wouldn’t be beaten but they were still very friendly. One evening the four RAF pinnaces were returning to Campbelltown after finishing. We were in line astern as always and I was last with 1333 when suddenly I noticed we were catching up with the pinnace in front. 1262 had run aground on a mud bank just outside the harbour bows up and list to port. I rounded up right away and started to think about what best to do. I knew the Navy pinnaces would be along in about a half an hour and if they saw the situation we’d never live it down. So I took the pinnace 1333 towards 1262 very slowly and passed a heaving line across from the forward and followed that up with a towing rope. I then turned 1333 around hoping it wouldn’t catch the bottom with my propeller and passed the towing rope aft and set into it to just tighten and then full ahead swinging hard to port and then starboard. Eventually breaking 1262 clear of the mudbank. We managed to get tied up before the Navy arrived. Pinnace 1262 wasn’t damaged and carried on with the exercise. After two weeks and a day or two we returned to our base at Ayr and back to the old routine. By now we had quite a few senior NCOs who’d gone for their demobs. This made duty coxswain come around more frequently. This was better than hanging around doing nothing but cleaning ship. The CO had even started checking the bilges. They’d had to be snow white. Things were slowing down and apart from one pinnace on standby flying at Turnberry Point nothing much else doing. VJ Day had come and gone and we knew the base would have to close shortly. I’m down for special duty with Seaplane Tender 445. These were known as the broad beam type. I didn’t know what job was, what the job was so arranged for my full pinnace crew to be on board the next morning. I’d been warned there’d be a group captain coming from Turnberry so first thing in the morning we cleaned the seaplane tender up in case of any inspection that might take place. We had the group captain’s flag ready for hoisting. At 08:00 hours two staff cars arrived with the group captain, CO of Turnberry and a few staff officers. The crew lined up on the foredeck for the salute. I thought we looked a bit scruffy but we were in working gear and passed muster ok. The group captain comes to the wheelhouse and starts to explain what we were to do. It was to be a practice drop of the airborne lifeboat. I’d heard a lot about these but never seen them in action. He said he would fill me in as we went down to the Turnberry Point. We let go and dropped down the river to the harbour buoy and set course for Turnberry Point and to position a mile north and a mile west of it. The lifeboat was to be dropped from Warwick aircraft at 10:00 hours or thereabouts. We arrived on position to find a stiff on shore wind blowing and a bit of a sea running. Maybe about two feet waves with steam blowing from the tops. It wasn’t the right weather for the practice and I’d said so to the group captain. That it might be much safer if we were to move another mile to the westward so it would give more sea room. One staff officer piped up that he thought we were in the right position so my suggestion was ignored. My crew came to the wheelhouse for a bit of shelter and to be instructed on what to expect. We were laid offshore until about 10:30 hours when the Warwick aircraft flew over. We could see the lifeboat slung under the Warwick. It looked bigger than I’d expected. Something like eighteen to twenty feet in length. The group captain explained what would happen and in what order but failed to mention that four rockets would shoot out of the lifeboat the second it landed on the sea and righted itself. There was an explosion and the lifeboat dropped from the aircraft with I think five parachutes holding it upside down. We were now less than a quarter of a mile from a rocky shoreline and any shore at that. We were about five hundred yards from the lifeboat when the group captain shouted from the foredeck to go full speed and pick up the lifeboat. I’m now flat out and doing about twenty one or twenty two knots when I spot an extra large wave coming up. I pulled the throttles right back on both engines as we hit the wave and the group captain sat on his backside and took the wave over himself. Never saw his cap again. As the wave passed astern I opened up again and as I was approaching the life boat the four rockets shot in to the air with six hundred fathoms of line attached with a small canvas sea anchor at each end. I was flaming mad at not being told about these rockets and by now we were in danger of being blown ashore. I put two deckhands on the lifeboat. Both knew the position we were in and they cut the lines to the sea anchors and got a tow rope fixed in seconds and I was away with it due west as fast as it was possible to go. The group captain had ideas of starting the two outboard motors on the lifeboat and sailing it to Maidens. There was no time to muck about like that and I towed the lifeboat into Maiden’s Harbour. The group captain never said a word about being soaked through and losing his cap. I lined the crew up again on the foredeck for the group captain’s departure. By this time a mobile crane was lifting the lifeboat out and placing it on a trolley fixed to a truck. The group captain saluted and thanked the whole crew for their effort. All he said to me was, ‘You’ve got a good crew there, Cox.’ These airborne lifeboats were about eighteen feet long equipped with two out board motors and plenty of survival gear, food, water, sweets, and cigarettes. They were built of laminated ply and had a balloon type contraption fastened on top of the deck bow and stern. These blew up when the lifeboat landed and caused it to right itself. I never got the chance to thoroughly examine these boats and their equipment but I’ve no doubt there would be a lot of first aid and body warming equipment on board. A week later the CO called me into the, called the crew in to the office to read a letter from the group captain thanking us all for our efforts in the exercise and handling of Seaplane Tender 445. Our CO was quite chuffed. There wasn’t a lot to do now other than stand by flying for Turnberry as a much reduced training schedule was now in operation. I was even faking engine tests just to get out to sea. The old 200 type Seaplane Tender was to be taken to Dumbarton on the Clyde. I was down for a second coxswain which surprised me as I already knew that the flight sergeant from the office was to take charge. He hadn’t been to sea since I first arrived at Ayr some fifteen or sixteen months ago. I took the wheel for the whole trip such as it turned out to be. flight sergeant was IC Navigation. I didn’t get a chance to look at the chart. Everything was going well when opposite Gourock we saw the Queen Elizabeth and the American West Point at anchor in the [unclear] and a Sunderland Flying Boat just landing more or less alongside. What a picture it was to see and we were all watching when the next second we came to a sudden stop. From eighteen knots to dead stop. We’d run on to a sand bank and were absolutely high and dry. In fact, we jumped down onto the sand and walked right around. I’d hit my chest on the wheel and wasn’t feeling too good but I kept it to myself. We sent a radio message to Dumbarton Maintenance and later as the tide turned they came ready to tow us the rest of the way. Damage was two bent shafts and two bent rudders and one snapped propeller blade. We hung our heads in shame on finally arriving at Dumbarton. For a change I was pleased that I hadn’t been in charge of the trip but it could have happened to me just the same. A moment’s relaxation. Not reading the chart. That’s all it was. Flight sergeant then said nothing about the grounding to me. A truck was laid on to take us back to Ayr and I never heard another word about it ever. Even the CO didn’t ask me about it. I was a bit puzzled but left it at that. A sudden torpedo exercise came on with just three planes and this was the last and unfortunately we lost one torpedo out of the three dropped. It went straight down end on into the seabed. We set up a sweeping operation but after two days it was given up for lost. In December 1945 orders were given to take all four pinnaces to Invergordon via the Caledonian Canal. But the weather was very wintry and a solid freeze was on. The River Ayr was frozen over to a depth of six inches and it was another week before the thaw came. Great chunks of ice came floating down the river Ayr and things got very uncomfortable at our moorings. Ice was being forced up on the foredeck and damage to the waterline would soon occur so we had to move down river to the harbour dock. I took the first pinnace. I took first pinnace, second on the outside. The CO was on the quay shouting all sorts of instructions and cautions. I didn’t take any notice. I just let go and allowed the pinnace to drift down with the moving ice packs. I had three, my three engines running but I didn’t want to use them too much due to damaging propellers on the ice. When opposite the dock entrance I kept slow ahead and in we went. The CO, the CO had followed on a bike all the way and when he was satisfied no damage had been done he went back to the quay and ordered the other three pinnaces and Seaplane Tender 445 to follow down to the dock. The next day we set off for Invergordon. The second week in December on the five day trip to Invergordon from Ayr I’m coxswain of the leading pinnace with the CO on board in overall charge and were were in line astern. The first day we got to Oban. The second Fort William and then for three days through the Caledonian Canal to Inverness and then around into the Cromarty Firth to Invergordon. We had a dry frosty weather all the way. It was just perfect. The scenery was magic. I’m sure all the crew enjoyed the trip from start to finish. Even the CO was taken in by it all and he’d been pretty decent to myself and the crew throughout. There were only two incidents during the trip. Firstly we picked up some old rope in the starboard propeller when, in the loch at Fort Augustus and no amount of ahead or astern could shift it. So we had to continue on two engines instead of three. The other incident was quite funny to us but not to the Navy. Two Navy minesweepers had been going through the canal a day ahead of us and like us had stayed the night at Fort Augustus. It seems they had gone ashore and raided a farmer’s chicken house and the farmer had complained to the police that he was six chickens adrift. At this time this was unknown to us but when we arrived at Inverness we moored alongside the two minesweepers in time to see the police march off carrying plates of chicken dinners for evidence to show in court. What a laugh we had about it. It was so funny. I don’t know what happened but I reckon the farmer would get his money worth, money’s worth, that’s for sure. Now around to Invergordon and hand the four pinnaces over and get clearance away and by the same day by train back to Ayr. It was a slowish journey. Sort of overnight via Perth. We took as many rations back as we could carry. A leg of mutton and some pork chops had been roasted and we ate these enroute with peanut butter and self-heating cans of soup. Back at Ayr and I’m now transferred to first coxswain on HSL Rescue Launch but not for long as this was due, also due to be terminated. The only flying now was from Prestwick and they had their own rescue cover from Lamlash on the Island of Arran. I get seven days leave before Christmas and come back to take the rescue launch back to Helensburgh for laying up. Flight lieutenant Francis was skipper. A decent chap who was in charge of the training school at Calshot in 1940. This was the last trip to sea for both of us and we took it as steady as we could at roughly twelve knots to make it last as long as possible. We arrived at Helensburgh and handed over all signed up but then I got a pleasant surprise for walking down the pier came Stan Oake of 2606 and Alan Clarkson of ASR Pinnace 1244. Both ex-Malta lads. They told me that the CO of Helensburgh was FO Price who was CO and skipper of 107 at Malta, St Paul’s Bay. Glad I didn’t have to meet him though as we never saw eye to eye ever. A funny old train journey back to Ayr. It took ages to cover a few miles. Helensburgh had become a receiving and storage base for RAF craft of all types. I’d never seen so many rescue launches and pinnaces swinging around on buoys trot after trot. All looking sort of miserable and neglected. The sight of all this made me feel a bit down and gloomy. I suppose you can’t be involved with all these RAF craft for almost six years and then suddenly stop without feeling you’ve lost something very special. Back at Ayr now and it’s just a collection of Nissen huts. Strangely quiet. Only a few of us left now. All lounging about with not much to do. A lot of time now spent in the Church Army Canteen just up the street from our quayside. I had always called in at this canteen when I returned from leave before going back to my bunk in the corner of the Nissen hut. After seven days leave the sight of a Nissen hut was not what, really what you really wanted to look at. On the camp there had never been a canteen or even a NAAFI shop. I presume the camp was considered too small. I’m expecting any day now to be demobilized and wondering what to find to do to fill in time when the CO posted up a letter showing the camp was officially to be closed down. This started some activity. We now had to recover all the moorings from the bed of the River Ayr. These mainly were kedges used to hold us off the quayside during bad weather. You might guess who got the job and it wasn’t the time of year, late January 1946 to be handling wet and freezing gear. I’m expected to recover these moorings with nothing to help me to do it or anybody to show me how to do it and that’s if there was anybody left that knew how. I don’t think there were more than twenty people left on the base. The first morning at 08:00 hours I’m down on the quayside weighing up what to do. Getting the moorings in manually wasn’t going to be easy. I went down to the quay where the fishing boats lay and managed to borrow two sets of blocks, both two and three reeve blocks. I’d six moorings to get in with each one hundred weight sinkers attached. I set up one block [pause] block and then used a nearby telephone pole for anchorage. I had about fifteen crew lads puling on the ropes. The first pull wasn’t too bad the ropes being dry but when these were disconnected and then we were pulling on ropes wet from the river they froze immediately. The ice went right through our gloves and our hands froze. It took all morning just to get one mooring in and up to the quayside. We all trooped into the canteen, up the street to thaw out with hot tea and buns and I should have mentioned before that Quay Street actually ran alongside the quay with houses and shops on one side. It took two full days to complete the job and on the third day a truck and mobile crane picked up the moorings and took them back to Turnberry. The quayside that the RAF had used for six years was then handed back to the town. Some hundred yards of quayside was involved and I’ve no doubt the town were very pleased to get it back especially for the use of the fishing fleet. February the 9th I was called to the CO’s office and told my demob had come through. Flight Lieutenant Wright then surprised me greatly by shaking hands and saying he was sorry we’d started off on the wrong foot. After all I’d done both on and off the base especially for the trip to Gordon. I suppose this was a decent end to my service with the RAF Marine Section and Rescue Service. February the 10th AM I arrived at Turnberry Point for clearance. Cleared all the sections with just the MO to give me my last medical. I was expecting the usual stiff RAF medical type but got a shock when I reported to sick quarters and told by the orderly to go straight into the MOs office. I knocked and entered. The flight lieutenant MO was sat at his desk and looked up at me and asked how I felt. ‘Ok,’ I said waiting for the medical to start. All he said was, ‘Jolly good,’ and, ‘Off you go.’ I was so surprised by this that I set off for the door and forgot to salute him. I’d just got my hand on the door when he calls me back. I wondered what he wanted and couldn’t believe it when he choked me off for not saluting. This made me so annoyed I almost told him a few home truths about the MOs not doing their jobs properly. I managed to stay quiet with a struggle. Then I’m out of the door and clear. I’ve a train pass to take me to RAF Cardington near Luton for final demob. The 11th of February 1946 I arrive at Cardington. This was the old original airship base of the 1920s and 30s. I’d never seen such tall hangars and they were almost as long as a street. These were now being used as clothing stores. There seemed to be thousands of lads charging about all with bundles in their arms. Long queues were seen standing at the doors of the hangars. This camp was being run on the cheap by the look of things. The organisation was such that no meals were offered, no accommodation was laid on except for the camp staff. We all had to be cleared and issued with civilian clothing and away the same day as arrival. This suited us all but meant overnight travel to get home. I joined one of the many long queues and handed in all my RAF gear except for what I was stood in. This was dumped in great heaps behind the counters. Nothing was really checked as we passed through the hangar and out the opposite end. Here we joined another queue at the next hangar. We shuffled along a few yards at a time and then were inside the hangar. There were long counters on both sides and we were told to alternate one to opposite sides. The noise going on was terrific. Clothing store staff shouting out sizes of hats, shoes, neck sizes, length and weight and civvies were almost thrown at you. I stuck it out for a suit I wanted and not the one they threw at me which was a tweedy sort of thing. I got a dark blue suit that was on the big side for me but I knew it would be ok when I’d had it altered. When I look back on this I suppose the staff at Cardington did a very good job all in all. They had to get through thousands of us going through each day. I do remember at the end of the counter we picked up our travel warrants and were wished the best of luck in in Civvy Street. This then was the end of my six years in the RAF. Strange as it may seem having waited impatiently for my demob to come along the final moment when leaving Cardington and the RAF was a bit sorrowful and anti-climactic. At least I made it to the demob centre. One of the fortunates. I’m now Mr William Bilton and not number 993686 as it had been for six years.

Citation

“Interview with Bill Bilton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 21, 2024, https://ibccdigitalarchive.lincoln.ac.uk/omeka/collections/document/46764.

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