Interview with Ken Hicks


Interview with Ken Hicks


Ken Hicks grew up in Wales and joined the Royal Air Force as an Apprentice Mechanic at RAF Halton. He worked on Spitfires during the Battle of Britain. He was later posted to Rhodesia and survived a crash in the bush. After the war, He took part in the Berlin Airlift and found a civilian worker who had died and been buried under the snow.




Temporal Coverage




01:21:54 audio recording


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CB: Right. My name is Chris Brockbank and I’m here to talk with Ken Hicks on the 3rd of November 2015 about his experiences in World War Two but if you’d like to start please Ken with your earliest recollections and then just go through your life in sequence please.
KH: To start with, my father, a coal miner down in Wales and when I was fifteen he said to me, ‘Lad you’re not going down the pit. I want you to learn a trade. I want you to go to see the headmaster and join the royal aircraft as an aircraft apprentice.’ I went and saw the headmaster and he said, ‘There’s no one been up from this school. The curriculum doesn’t cover it.’ But my old man went down and thumped the table. And he said ok and he sent for the exam paper and I sat in his office in his chair and I had one hour and I answered all the questions and he came in and he said, ‘Put your pen down.’ So I had just I just worked out the last answer so I jotted that down and he went bananas. ‘When I say put the pen down put the pen down.’ So he put it in a big brown envelope and he said, ‘Lick that,’ and I licked it. And he got hold of me by the ear and said, ‘Come on. I want to see you post it.’ So I posted it. I passed. He had me up in front of the school, tapping my head saying, ‘There’s a clever boy. I want all you boys to try this examination now.’ So I learned a lot about humanity [laughs]. So off I went to RAF Halton as a civilian lad of sixteen. Never been out of the Welsh valley even alone Wales on a train up to London. We got, we got to London and all the apprentices were sort of gathering there on the last train to Wendover and we all straggled up to, up to the camp. Not marched. And I was very impressed. I would, became a member of B Squadron. Two Wing Aircraft Apprentice RAF Halton. There was over a thousand boys in our entry and it was quite an eye opener but I adapted very well. My education wasn’t all that clever so I wasn’t one of the brainy blokes. I never became a snag — a corporal apprentice, or a sergeant apprentice [laughs]. I was still an AA. I got a three year training course but the war broke out 1939 and they cut it down to two years. Cut out a lot of sport and concentrated on teaching us. We marched down to schools, we marched down to the workshops and we marched down to the airfield for the aircraft training. We were training on Hawker Harts and Demons drilling, rigging. Stripping them down. Building them up. And an old Hampden there as the bomber side of it. I passed out in June 1940 and posted to 222 Squadron which was based at Kirton Lindsey, Lincoln at the time. And I’d only been there a week and beginning to settle down when we moved down to Hornchurch which moved straight into the Battle of Britain which commenced then and with two Spitfire squadrons at Hornchurch — 222 and I think it’s 603 City of Glasgow Spitfire squadron. I worked with a LAC 1GC who called me a sprog and I soon picked up we were repairing bullet holes in Spitfires. Filing around. If they, if they weren’t too bad we put a fabric patch on them. Anything to keep the aeroplane flying. Or we had to rivet two small riveting patches. I fitted in well with the, with the airman. We worked until the aircraft was serviceable. Sometimes gone midnight. We lost thirty seven pilots in that three months on my squadron and I wasn’t, I didn’t realise what was happening up there in the sky above us. The Germans were bombing our airfields and the Dorniers were coming across at about six thousand feet and mounds of earth — bombs were dropping and they were trying to – the grass airfields and they were trying to obliterate the RAF camps altogether. Bombs on the airfield. We had civilians out there with shovels filling in the bomb holes. They were bombing our hangars. And I was in the bath one night, 10 o’clock, when a bomb landed right outside the building and blew all the glass from the door into the bath with me and plaster. I reached over for my towel and that was covered in bits of glass. So I turned the duckboard upside down and stood on that. It was pitch dark. Half the block had been knocked down so the next night they moved us over to a round nissen hut the other side of the airfield and we were all in bed and about 1 o’clock in the morning a landmine which had come down went off and blew the roof right off our head. This corrugated roof. And we were all shouting at each other in our beds. Everybody. ‘Everybody alright.’ So we said we were alright and nobody hurt so we went back to sleep looking up at the stars. So that was a good opening. [pause] Where were we?
CB: We’re going to have a break for a mo.
[Recording paused]
CB: Ok. So you’ve lost the roof.
KH: Yeah.
CB: And what happened next day?
KH: The next day I had to go with the corporal. Corporal airframe fitter. I was, I was an airframe fitter. A land rover down, one of our Spitfires had landed down in Kent. In Manston. So we had to go down there and repair it. On the way down through the Kentish fields all the fields that were unharvested at that time of the year and they were all burning. Flames going across the road as we were driving along. I don’t know if that was a ploy to destroy the harvest or what but anyway we got to this Manston. Manston was a place heavily bombed. Anything left, any bombs left, any bombs left going back to Germany they picked Manston out and dropped them there. So there was no one on the station except a skeleton staff but we had a billet and there was, there was an emergency cook laid on for meals and we got to the Spitfire which had bent a prop and a pitot head and the corporal fitter in charge he changed the prop and I had to help him. There was no one on the station so we helped ourselves in the empty yard and anywhere else for equipment and stuff. We worked in the middle of the airfield. There was also a lorry there full of civilian workers. They were shovelling and filling in the bomb holes trying to put the airfield back in to some sort of serviceability state and one of them was binoculars scouring the skies. He was lookout and when he blew the whistle they all dropped their shovels, jumped in the truck and tore off the airfield. So we soon twigged it and when they went off the airfield we went off as well [laughs]. We dropped our tools and went off as well. So we fixed this Spitfire and the pilot came down in an Anson, dropped him off and he took off and flew it back to Hornchurch and then we got home and that was my first introduction to the war as it were. What was happening? Stop.
CB: Ok.
[Recording paused]
CB: Ok Ken can we just talk about what was your role as a rigger? What did you actually do in your job?
KH: As an airframe fitter I’d done the basic training and trained on older type of aircraft but now I was on a Spitfire which I’d never seen before in my life and didn’t know. Hadn’t done any training on it but I was given, I was told to work with an LAC 1GC airframe fitter who knew the ropes and he had to sort of teach me. So any riveting he was riveting that side and I held the block on this side sort of thing. So we were doing patches on the skins and things like that. Change undercart. Change the wheels. Tyre bay. How to use, how to use the tyre levers to change those, get those tyres off. Things like that. They were all practical work which I’d never done before and everything we did I learned. I learned more all the time. We had to learn the hydraulic system, the pneumatic system, the electrical system, anti-freeze system and even spraying. We had to spray and paint the camouflage back on the aircraft. And another role came out. We had to paint the underneath of the Spitfires a duck egg, duck egg blue, a light duck egg blue. So there we were lying on the hangar floor with a twelve inch, two inch paint brush painting the underside of a Spitfire. And we had to do the whole squadron. We’d got a mat to lie on on the hard concrete floor. That took us about a week to do the squadron. I can’t remember other things which I did because it was a long time ago.
CB: What about the flying controls which were wire operated?
KH: Well they were alright but I I had to do some splicing and I got a wire out and made a measurement and got a new wire from stores and spliced in the buckle on both ends. That’s seven and a half tucks on the splicing and then, and then fit it, wire, pull it back through with the string and connect it up. Tension the turn buckle to get it all right. And then the aircraft used to go out then on air test. On one occasion I was working in a hangar and apparently a Spitfire had come over from dispersal. They disbursed the Spits instead of having them in one place and be a target for a bomb they disbursed the other side of the airfield all over the place. Well this one came over and stopped in between the hangars and the chaps coming back from lunch, dinnertime thought it was the next Spitfire to be done so they pushed it into the hangar but this one was armed and nobody knew about it. They came back from dinner and I was down just about opening my toolbox underneath the wing of this aircraft when an instrument basher had got into this aircraft he’d shoved in to check his instruments and he pressed the firing button for some reason and all of a sudden four machine guns blasting. Blasting the hangar wall with the armour piercing tracer bullets flying around all over the place. Quite a long burst. And I was crouching down behind my tool box and I thought [laughs] well it’s a bit dodgy this is. [laughs] Lots of things happened when we were working there. Every now and again we had to drop — drop our tools and run for the air raid shelter and get down there fast. I was down the air raid shelter one day and I was about the last one in I think ‘cause I was near the entrance and I heard an aircraft taxiing off so I l had a look out and there was a Hurricane had come in. It was taxiing around. There was nobody about. We were all down the air raid shelter. And the pilot was waving so I ran out, crossed and jumped on to the wing and it was, it was a Polish pilot and he wanted to know what airfield he’d landed on. He had a map on his knee which showed him more or less the east coast so I turned it over and I pointed out where we were. Hornchurch. Hornchurch. And he had a look around and I knew the Poles were over at, over the other side of London so I said to him, ‘Balloon barrage. Fly over the top.’ ‘Oh yah yah,’ he said, you know and off he went. I hope he got back alright. There were quite a few instances but when you’re young and you’re new to the game you learn pretty fast. You make mates but the Air Ministry post you as numbers and you just get a serviceable team going nicely and you’re posted overseas invariably. Never to, never to see each other again. So you don’t make friends too long in the air force. They come and go fast. Some are posted to the desert. Some are posted to Iceland to the snow. Some are posted up the Far East. I was on the boat. Went down to Uxbridge got my KD and [torpee?] Up to Liverpool. Got on a troop ship RMS Scythia. Hammocks. No bunks. Out in a fifty two boat convoy. Left the Clyde, staggered course, escorted by destroyers and one battleship. Out in to the North Atlantic. I heard depth charges going off. The destroyers were chasing the subs which were after the convoy. Apparently, we heard that they did get one. One of our troop ships. We came down towards the equator and on the day we crossed the equator I had my nineteenth birthday. Crossing the equator going down south on a staggered course. Then we headed west, west again to Freetown. Out into the Atlantic and down the South Atlantic to Cape Town. Mostly army bods on board. They were going around, they were going around up to the Suez Canal, Cairo and they were tackling Rommel in North Africa. But the twenty eight names of the RAF were shouted out. ‘Get your kit off the boat. Get on that train.’ The train set off up for a day and a half and we knew there wasn’t a river line going all the way to Cairo which we thought we were going there. And we came to Salisbury Rhodesia and I was posted to mount, RAF Mount Hampden. There were three stations around Salisbury. One was Tiger Moths, one was Harvards for training fighters and one was Oxfords training bombers and I was posted to Mount Hampden — Tiger Moths. We got there. We were advanced party. Twenty eight men in an advanced party. All trades. And we were setting up, setting it up it. Getting it prepared. The entry arrived on a train from the [wool?] station. Corrugated sink, roofs. Billets with mosquito net windows and doors. Storm ditches. And we soon settled down. Guards. Guard duty. I don’t know what we were guarding from. The natives weren’t, we could hear their jungle drums going all night when they’d had some Kafa beer down them from the village and that was about all. We had no problems from the outside but we still had to do guards. We were assembling aircraft out of packing cases. Tiger Moths. And we kept doing that until we got, we got about forty and they were doing circuits and bumps training pilots and one time there were four prangs on the airfield at the same time. One had landed heavy. Busted his undercart. Another one had landed, watching him, landed on top of another one and they both turned over like that. Upside down. And then another one crash landed and we had a big sign on the hangar wall, “You bend them, we mend them.” When we finished in the aircraft I had to go flying with the pilot on a test flight to test the aircraft before they handed over on to flying training. Loops and rolls and spins. So I used to put my parachute on and pull the straps tight and practice grabbing the, grabbing the rip cord to open the ‘chute. I always wanted to bale out. We were up there flying one day doing aerobatics and the aircraft, the engine cut so I thought, ah. So I shouted down the tube, ‘Can I bale out? ’ He said, ‘No. I can see a clearing in the jungle down there. So I thought oh. So we landed in this clearing. It was about four foot high grass stuff and we hit a termite hill which whipped the undercart off, dug our nose in and slammed us over on our back upside down. So I undid slowly on to the back of my neck, wriggled out and it didn’t catch fire. And that was at half past six in the morning. When the sun got up there it gets up to a hundred and ten, a hundred and twenty in the shade in the summertime. We had no food. No water. And the pilot said, ‘I can hear, I heard a lion roaring.’ Well there were lions around that area. I thought well we can’t leave the aircraft ‘cause they’ll never find us. So we were lumbered. We were stuck. Mid-day a Moth flew over, spotted us, waggled his wings and flew back and told them where we were. At about five o’clock a three tonner came through the jungle with Chiefy and a couple of bods and brought us food and water. Our Chiefy had a look at the aircraft. It had broken its back, it had broken its spruce bars and the wings had gone. This, that and the other. And I was watching him. He took his pipe out and he put his tobacco in. He struck a match and he took a couple of puffs and he went over and he threw the lit match down where the petrol was and up went the petrol and he said to the pilot, he said, ‘When you landed it burned didn’t it? ’ He said. He said it wasn’t worth taking back so (laughs] we went and left it. Yeah. Crumbs.
CB: Do you want a break?
KH: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: So the plane was a write off and caught fire so you went back but this was the sort of aeroplane you were trained on.
KH: Yes. That was no problem. They used to use me a lot because I was trained on aircraft and I could rig, I could rig the Tiger Moth so that there was no — it wasn’t flying left wing low, right wing low and all this that and the other and I used to do the trimming. I used to do any control work on it and I used to go up on air tests and make sure with the pilots that it was perfectly serviceable to hand over to flying training. That was primarily my job.
CB: What rank were you at this stage?
KH: I started off AC1, AC2, LAC.
CB: Right.
KH: I was stuck out in Rhodesia. No promotion for three years. I was doing an essential job training. Training pilots. I trained them in Rhodesia, South Africa and Canada so they were out of the way of the war. And that meant no promotion otherwise everybody would be flight sergeant [laughs] on the station [laughs]. Well there was no promotion at all for three years. One. One. He was a chippy carpenter. He got corporal stripes. He was the only one on the station that got promoted in that three years. The rest of the war was going on. That was more important. They were fighting out in Burma, they were fighting out in the Middle East and they were fighting out everywhere. They were moving around and getting places and getting promoted. They were on squadrons, my trade and the corporal would get killed and they thought they’d make an LAC up. There was promotion going on but not down there where we were on the training so I was still an LAC when I got home after three years. Six, six months I was only home in the UK six months and then I was posted overseas again. Egypt. A boat across the channel, a train down to [Touronne?] living in tents in the flooded water in the heavy rain until, for three days, until we got on a troop ship. Took us across the Med. Called in at Malta and I got rid of stuff there. And we didn’t know where we were going of course and then we saw the lovely blue Mediterranean Sea turning brown and we couldn’t see any land but that was the, that was the river coming down from North Africa.
CB: So this is the Nile Delta.
KH: The Nile. And that was coming out in to the Mediterranean and running and it was still brown full days sailing out from, you know. We came Alexandra. Dropped a few people off there and then we got on a train up to Cairo and we were nodding off on the train, with my head on the woodwork at the side and I started scratching and it was bugs come out of the woodwork and was biting me. I was lumps coming up [laughs] so I thought that’s our entrance to Egypt, you know. And this was the thing which we had to do. First of all it was a PGC Almaza in tents and before we left to go out in the evening into Cairo we used to put everything in our kit bag and lock it on to the tent pole because we’d heard that thieves used to get into the camp and pinch airmen’s equipment. When we came back, the rows of tents, there was a tent missing. They’d come in with a lorry and they’d picked the whole tent up pegs and all and put it in a lorry and drove out and nobody said anything. But ours was alright. Then we were waiting for our postings and we were posted everywhere. Down to, down the coast of Africa, down further down in to Egypt. They were posted up to Palestine. They were posted everywhere from there. Distribution place. And I got, I got Almaza Flying Station itself on Dakotas. So I soon picked that up then. We all had to move out of Egypt then so we all moved out of the Canal Zone. Two hundred mile across the desert to the Canal Zone. There was a great bit of lake half way down. It was Deversoir. Kibrit. Kibrit. Deversoir and 107MU and I was posted to 107MU repairing aircraft. But it was good in one thing. There was nothing to do. We had three yacht clubs on the station on the canal and I joined 107MU Sailing Club. I had put my name down first in a queue and then I was called up after about three weeks to join a club. The first thing I had to was allocate myself to a skipper who used to take me out and teach me how to use a jib. When I’d logged eight hours on the jib I was then free to be picked up by any skipper to go out on the main sail and give it dual instruction. And I found that I had a natural ability which I didn’t know I had and I could sail it pretty good. I learned. We’d got the rule book and I passed. Passed the B Helmsman Certificate and I became — I could take a boat out myself so I could book a boat out and take someone out. So, and every – we stopped – we finished, we started work at a quarter to six in the morning and we finished at one because it got too hot after that. So it was straight down the sailing club and I spent a lot of hours on the lake.
[Phone ringing. Recording paused]
KH: I’ve never done that before. [pause] Yeah. So I genned up on my racing rules and I passed my Helmsman Certificate. I could take a boat out and race. I could race. Compete. And I found I had the natural ability and I was, at the end of the year I was coming in first. I had three. The monthly race I was coming in first.
[Phone ringing. Recording paused]
CB: So, we’ve just paused for the phone. We’ve been talking about after the war in Egypt.
KH: Yeah.
CB: But you came back for six months.
KH: Yeah.
CB: What did you do in that six month period because this was at the end of ‘44?
KH: During that six months I was posted on to a squadron of [pause] of Hunters I think it was and I found out I knew nothing about modern aircraft and I asked and I got, I was away on aircraft instructional courses some lasting a month to various stations. I did three courses altogether and briefed up working on aircraft with the hydraulic systems and pneumatic systems, de-icer systems and all types of operational retraction handling and getting used to modern aircraft.
CB: Were these fighters or bombers or both?
KH: Everything.
CB: Right. And where were you stationed?
KH: Bombers. Transport. I was stationed actually at [paused] at — I don’t —
CB: Well we’ll pick up with it later.
KH: I can’t remember it.
CB: But you were getting up to date on modern aircraft systems.
KH: Yeah. Yeah. I did. You realise that I’d been out in the desert I hadn’t worked on them. But that developed rapidly during the war while I was out there.
CB: So after you finished at 107MU.
KH: Yeah.
CB: What did you do then? So you did sailing in the part time but after you left the MU in Egypt —
KH: Yeah.
CB: Where did you go?
KH: Well let’s see. I was posted to RAF [pause] as an instructor at Cosford. That’s right. RAF Cosford. As an instructor instructing air frames, hydraulic systems on the aircraft. From there the Berlin Airlift started and we were we were taken off to do a three month detachment on to the Berlin airlift so I was out of my first Berlin Airlift and straight into Berlin. Shift work. The aircraft. The Russians had surrounded Berlin and so we had to fly everything in. Food, coal, everything. So one aircraft landing every three minutes right around the clock. Avro Yorks, Hastings. Hastings were carrying fuel. But mainly Dakotas. American Dakotas flying right around the clock in shift work and we had the German labour to offload the aircraft and we had to – I was involved in seeing the aircraft in. Marshalling them, stopping them, putting the chocks there and getting them all in line and when they were emptied the pilot came back from having a cup of tea, got all back in the aircraft and started them up. I had a torch. That’s all. Start one, two, three, four engines or whatever what they were and the same all off. Right around the clock. If there was anything wrong we had to tackle it. We had to check, check the tyres, oil leaks, if there was a cut in the tyre we’d put it serviceable to fly back to base if we thought they wouldn’t make it. We didn’t want them stuck in Berlin. It was tough going and it was January. Snow. Three or four of inches of snow. We kept on flying and I was going from one aircraft to the other in the snow and there was a big pile of snow there. And I give it a kick. I thought, ‘What?’ And there was a dead man underneath it. It was a German labourer unloading the aircraft. He’d walked through a prop which was running under the wing and he didn’t see the prop and chopped him and covered with him snow as it taxied away. It was that bad but we kept it going. It was shift work and we were, we were shattered. The food we were having from the cookhouse was what we were flying in. Dehydrated. Everything was dehydrated potatoes dehydrated. Pomme. Dehydrated peas. Dehydrated powdered stuff and we weren’t getting good food at all. For Christmas Day we had one whole orange each. That was a treat. That was the toughest part I’ve ever been in I think. That Berlin Airlift. And the station commander wasn’t satisfied when he walked around our billets because we were doing shift work. We were piling out of bed and getting to work six o’clock in the morning. Leave our, leave our bed made down and that wasn’t good enough. All beds had to be made up. This that and the other. And everybody was put on a charge and we were all given a reprimand. A block punishment. [laughs] But I used to get time off. I was chatting up, my mate and I chatting up a couple of deutsche bints as we called them. [laughs] Yeah. It was alright. Anyway, we were back, back at Bassingbourn which was our base then. On Avro Yorks. Working on Yorks and they put me, when I got back to Bassingbourn, the warrant officer in charge says, ‘You’re a married man. I want you to go to the R&D section,’ receive and despatch section in charge of ten WAAFs. ‘I want a married man to look after them.’ So I went over to the edge of a hangar there was a section and they were sort of changing the white covers over the back of the seats in the aircraft and the airmen I had were doing the fitting of the seats. Taking them out and stacking them on a tractor and a trailer and we used to, an aircraft, a York used to come in, different rolls. Some had a roller. Some had lashing chains. Some had power seats. Some had VIP seats and all these had to be handled. And strip the aircraft and hand it over for it to do the servicing. Into maintenance and then fit them all back in afterwards so it was quite a busy operation and variation and they were all airmen and WAAFs and I was a corporal put in charge of them [laughs] and the first day I knocked off at 5 o’clock. They all left the section and I locked the hangar. Locked the section up which was a steel door. I was going to lock it and one of the WAAFs had come back, had got hold of me and pinned me against a wall. Grabbed a handful. So I thought, Jones, her name was. Bloody thing. So I talked her out of that one. I thought I’ve got to handle these buggers myself now [laughs]. So it was quite a struggle too because some of the airmen were a bit bolshie. They were, they all had demob numbers. They all wanted to get out, get out of the mob. That happened to start with down when I was down in Egypt. I had a, I had a team, servicing team. I was in charge of two aircraft servicing teams and every now and again a demob number would come up and I’d lose a man, lose another man, and lose a man – no replacements. Getting less and less and we had I was training two natives. Two Egyptian natives to do some of the work. Some of the rigging and fitting work. Just the donkey work stuff. And I thought well this is no good. We had fifteen Dakotas there servicing on the line. And then, and Chiefy says, ‘You’ll have to take that Dakota there he said, get in it, get somebody to start it up, pull the trolley acc away and taxi it yourself out into the desert as far as you can. Switch your engines off, get out and shut the door and walk back here.’ And that’s what I had to do. All these Dakotas. The war had finished. The Yanks didn’t want the Dakotas back. Nobody wanted them so took them out in the desert and left them there. And the third day I was going out, I taxied out and there was another one of them starting up so I went over. There was a truck there. It was Israelis there from Israel. They come down starting up to tax, taxiing to the runway and flying them back to Israel. [laughs]. So all I was doing was helping the bloody Israelis out [laughs] nicking all our Dakotas. Well they were supposed to be but they were perfectly alright. We were working all that time to get them serviceable. Cor flipping heck. But I soon adapted to that.
CB: So that was in your desert time. We were just having a reflection there. So back to Bassingbourn.
KH: Bassingbourn.
CB: Were you losing people to demob there as well?
KH: Yes. All the time.
CB: We’re on National Service now of course.
KH: Yeah.
CB: Because we’re on 1948.
KH: Yeah. Yeah it was. It got difficult then. What did I do? I went on courses. Bassingbourn. [pause] Cosford as instructor. Yeah. Married. Yeah Bassingbourn. Airlift.
CB: So Bassingbourn had Yorks.
KH: Yeah.
CB: And then did you keep on that aircraft or did you go to something quite different somewhere else?
KH: Oh no. I’m trying to think what happened then.
CB: We’ll take a —
KH: Oh yeah
CB: Sorry.
KH: I got quite fed up then and I was – what was it? I was at Abingdon. No. I was in digs in Reading. I was married. Digs in reading. I was on a motorbike back and forth to Abingdon. Working RAF Abingdon on Yorks and I was passing Benson and I was chatting to in bloke in Wallingford, a RAF chap from Benson. He said there’s a Queen’s Flight, Benson, King’s Flight at Benson then and he says, ‘Why don’t you come to Benson, you know, instead of going back and forth to Reading all the time.’ Reading to Abingdon. So I went to the orderly room and I I asked if I could be posted and I filled in a form and then I was posted to a Kings Flight. Well I was sent over there for interview. I arrived at a guardroom and I was escorted down to the hangar and up to the warrant officer in charge and I was interviewed and then he took me through to the flight lieutenant who happened to be in my entry. Thirty eighth entry at Halton. He was one of the brainy ones. He got, he got a technical commission and so he says, he says, ‘Right,’ you know, ‘We’ll have you.’ So I was posted to the Kings Flight. I applied for married quarters and I got it. 11 Spitfire Square and and everything was fine. Then it was the Queen’s Flight. The Queen’s Flight [pause]. Two children born there. Halton Hospital. Yeah. I enjoyed my stay there. I did so well when I left and yeah, I got the Royal Victoria Medal presented to me when I left. I was in Germany and I was sent, I was sent down to Bonn where a group captain was dishing out medals and I was presented with the RVM for being on the Queen’s Flight. For the good work I’d done there. I was working on Swift, Swift aircraft. There was only two squadrons of Swifts made. 2 Squadron down on Aden. I was on 79 Squadron and Chief Tech Airframe and nobody knew anything about these bloody aeroplanes. And I reckon I did some good work on them. The warrant officer relied on me for everything. Any snag that came up he used to come and ask me. There was one Swift sitting there. They couldn’t keep it in a hangar because it was running fuel all the time out of a pipe out of the back. Filled the drip trays so they kept it outside. They kept it out over a drain. The next thing the farmer down the road said his cows were getting ill. It was the fuel was going into the brook and drinking the oily, oily water so he asked me to do something about it. So I’ve got, I never seen Swift before in my life and I got, I went and got the one and only book on it and I took it home that night and read it. It was gone midnight when I finished reading that. And I studied all the circuits and this that and the other to where that fuel could come from. So then I went over and I undid a couple of panels and I got to the bottom of the tank, main front tank behind the pilot of this Swift and there was three pipes there and I traced them in the book and one was going up to a recuperator tank which was inside the main tank. It was pressurised from the engine. There was a rubber sock in the middle of that little tank. Pressure from the engine so that when you went into a G turn you was still getting full pressure from the engine on to his fuel to keep the fuel pressure up for his engine and that was the rubber sock in the middle of the front tank and that that pipe was the only one, I thought well there must be a pinhole in that rubber sock that’s getting through to the outside of that, but the air side of it and then coming out the drain at the back. And I told, I told the warrant officer this and he said, ‘Righto,’ and he took me onto another job then and he put a sergeant and a few riggers to work the tank out and put it on test to make sure what I said was true and it was. It was leaking. I’d pinpointed it alright. Then I was posted wasn’t I? Where was it? What do you call them? I can’t remember.
CB: So you were in Germany.
KH: In Germany.
CB: Where was that? Bruggen?
KH: Gutersloh.
CB: Oh Gutersloh. Right.
KH: Gutersloh [pause] Bassingbourn. Bassingbourn.
CB: Tell you what. We’ll have a break.
KH: Yeah.
[Recording paused]
CB: Ok Ken. So after Gutersloh where did you go? You came back to Benson did you?
KH: Came back to Benson and the flights, flight commander said, ‘All the technical jobs are occupied but I want somebody to sort out a pain in my neck,’ he says, ‘Which is the roll equipment. I want to put you in charge of roll equipment and I want you to sort it out.’ I didn’t know what roll equipment was and I got down there and I had three sergeants. They were store bashers in the office and I had been an LAC I had a few corporals and a lot of men out in the hangar and they had twenty five Avro Yorks on the station that they could drop the ramp down the back and they could fit it out with roller seats or any anything [barrow?] and all that equipment, the roll equipment is stacked up in the back hangar at Benson and it, and it had to be sorted out. So I I had them all, all in the hangar there together in a group and I told them what's got to be done. So first of all we got some, some of the roller equipment which is racks with roller, roller balls on them. You could put things on so you could move, move everything around on them easily and assembled racks in the hangar to store these things and you’ve got to go through a servicing and then a servicing bay. US that side, serviceable that side and get a gang on servicing that lot and when they finished put them back on the serviceable rack and there were racks for holding all the chains for lashing down. All the straps, all the buckles and rings you could screw into the floor. There was all the seating. There was all the para seating. There was, there was all kinds of rolls. Centre poles you could put down from the floor to ceiling and fit seats in. All that sort of thing which was quite complicated really and these aircraft was going down the route and there was trouble down in [Muharraq?] and I was told by the wing commander to go down the route to [Muharraq?] and sort it out. The roll equipment there. And I walked in to roll equipment there and the flight sergeant in charge there and he’d put there from somewhere else. He didn’t know a thing about it and he was overloaded with the stuff. It was building up and he didn’t know what to do with it. It was the AQMs were slinging stuff off. They were getting a job sheet to carry so much and drop it off to there and this that and the other and no one was taking into account what was in the aircraft and what wasn’t and if there was room or not and it was chaos and the stuff was piling up down the end of the route. And so I went back and I told the wing commander and he said well make out, make out, he made out sent a directive down the route that any aircraft coming back with room has got to put roll equipment on it to bring it back to roll equipment Benson. So they brought it all back slowly so we got it all back and we could work it, work better then. Sorted that one out. What happened from there? From Benson.
CB: What year are we talking about now? 1954.
KH: Oh crumbs yeah.
CB: ’54.
KH: Yeah.
CB: Ok. We’ll stop there for a bit.
KH: Yeah. Stop.
[Recording paused]
CB: So Ken, you’re posted to Hornchurch which is on Spitfire’s and they’re much more sophisticated than you’d been trained at Halton.
KH: Yeah.
CB: So how did they get you, ‘cause it’s the height of the Battle of Britain. How did they get you in on the act as it were?
KH: Yes well as an airman. Aircraft fitter. Airframe fitter. Trained but with lack of experience I was told to work with a LAC 1GC airframe fitter which – and we went through all his normal work and I was his mate as it were and I picked up a lot about the Spitfire. I was always questioning. I was always trying to get hold of air publication books so that I could, but I couldn’t get hold of any to learn more about the aircraft. The aircraft was developing in such a pace that new things were happening to the Spitfire all the time. They were improving this, improving that, improving the other and I wasn’t in a position to go in the flight sergeants office and have a look at the, have a look at all the APs and things like that. In any case that wasn’t my main interest at all. It was just getting the overtime worked. Usually working until you got the aircraft serviceable even if you were working until the midnight. It’s got to be ready first thing in the morning. If not and you do a shift work on it until it is ready. Most of the air frame work was you could, you could do it within a couple of hours. Undercart checks, this that and the other I could do in a couple of hours and carry on with the next aircraft but as an AC you could be taken off that job and put on another job even if you were halfway through it to work with somebody else but you don’t make the decisions. They do and they tell you what to do and it was that state of affairs but the more I did of that the more experience I got and the more experience you got the more responsibility they gave you to do. If you got three men and one of them has some experience and the other two are not its experienced bloke that gets the job and he’s the chap they rely on. So I found out, you find out the hard way. Sometimes you’re given the dirty jobs all the time and other times you’re not. You’re given the good jobs. So it depends who the next rank above you is and what he decides. So you’re bobbing around your corporals and your sergeants. Your sergeants were up top. They were miles away.
CB: You mentioned having to check documents. The APs are air force publications aren’t they?
KH: Yes. Yeah.
CB: When an aeroplane lands what has to be done to it before it can fly again? There are some basic procedures are there?
KH: Yeah. The pilot, pilot signs the aircraft in and he puts his signature down and puts down anything he finds wrong with it and he puts it down. That goes down in to the technical section and they put a man on to rectify that fault. So the pilot’s signature’s always there and before he takes the aircraft up he has to do the last signature that it is serviceable is down and then he signs over the top before he takes over and flies the aeroplane. He’s not allowed to take it up unless he signs the 700 first ‘cause that is the bible.
CB: In the heat of the battle they didn’t have time to do that so what happened then?
KH: Oh they did. They did.
CB: Oh they did.
KH: Yeah. Chiefy used to stick the 700 and a pen in his hand and he used to sign that and run. He didn’t know what he’d signed. [laughs]
CB: Amazing. So you’re working long hours. You get to finish the task. Where are you living on the airfield?
KH: Well before I was married I was in a block with the airmen.
CB: Right.
KH: And it was a station then at Benson here. As an airman, before I got married, and was quartered we used to march down from the block, across the main road, down to the hangars and march back again in those days. But they packed that in because it got too difficult in the end.
CB: Because the war was on.
KH: Yeah. This that and the other. Yeah. They got rid of that lot.
CB: And in the, so in a barrack block there are a number of rooms on several floors. How many people in a room?
KH: There’s a ten, ten. Twenty in a room.
CB: Yeah.
KH: And a snag in a bunk.
CB: Yeah. That’s the corporal.
KH: Six, six rooms and there’s a, there’s a static order. Everybody takes a turn in doing certain jobs. Domestic jobs that’s got to be done.
CB: What would they be?
KH: Bumpering the floor. Everyone had got his own space to do. In the old days you used to make your kit up into blankets. They had biscuits. Three biscuits stacked and then the blankets and sheets folded and the last sheet folded right around the top. Put on the top there and they had to leave that before they went, left to go to work like that. But they eased off on that situation later on.
CB: So bumpering the floor meant polishing the floor with a big bumper.
KH: Yeah.
CB: What other jobs were there you had to do?
KH: Well the, when it was your turn, what was it? Now everybody had his own window to clean. His own floor space. Bed. Locker.
CB: And the communal areas.
KH: The room orderly. There were certain things he had to do.
CB: Who was the room orderly?
KH: Everybody took it in turns.
CB: For a week or a day?
KH: No. A week.
CB: Right.
KH: There was a drying room down the back and a wash. A shower room. The toilets.
CB: How did they get cleaned?
KH: They were, they were all on a roster. So they were all done, all covered. The corporal in the bunk was usually the man who run it so it was run very smooth.
CB: Yeah.
KH: You was directly in contact with him.
CB: So in each room there’s a corporal and twenty men.
KH: Yeah.
CB: And now about eating. What was the procedure for that?
KH: Oh well. You just – what was it? [pause] You just wander over to the cookhouse with your mug and irons and no problem. Yeah. Certain times there was times when we had to work overtime on this that and the other and go back to the cookhouse and it still, it still, you’d still get fed and all that. There was no problem. IF you were orderly corporal or a orderly sergeant. An orderly sergeant in the guardroom. He’s got his job laid down down down. He’s got to make sure the NAAFI’s shut at 9 o’clock and he’s got to make sure that this and the other is done. He’s got to go around. It’s all automatic and back to the guardroom. I went to the guardroom the other day and there was two sailors there running it [laughs].
CB: A bit different now.
KH: Yeah.
CB: Yeah. So what were the mealtimes?
KH: Oh normal. Half past seven ‘til eight. Work at half past eight. Nine hours. Or 8 o’clock. Depends what what you’re doing. Some earlier than others. The pen pushers well they were static but the fitters and riggers they have to adapt their work time to suit the job. If there was early start aircraft in the morning they had to be there. They were knocking off early and it was all covered that way.
CB: How often did you sleep next to the aircraft?
KH: Never. No. Never got to that stage.
CB: Not even in the Battle of Britain.
KH: No. Well I don’t know what they did our in the flights but they were, we were the fitters in the hangar.
CB: Right.
KH: Working on the aircraft. There were airframe mechanics, engine mechanics out on the flights dealing with them first hand and they had a different system to cover all eventualities.
KH: And the armourers.
CB: And the same with all. All trades the same. Yeah. The armaments sections. Yeah. Instrument section. This that and the other and they all had their ICs and they were the chaps looking after them. It worked very well.
KH: Yeah. Ok. Stopping there for a mo.
[Recording paused]
JLE: [First days?] I’d find quite interesting to know about.
CB: Apprenticeship days. Right.
KH: Apprenticeship days. Well. You were in a billet. Twenty men and a corporal or the senior man in the bunk. Six rooms to a, six rooms to a block. You’re forming, when I first joined, you’re forming outside with your mug and irons in your hand. Marched to breakfast 8 o’clock. Quarter to eight. Something like that. After breakfast came back and you squared your bed up, rolls your overalls, put them under your arm, fall in outside and you marched on to the square. A Squadron, B Squadron, C Squadron. The man in charge. The band would start up and you’d all march behind the band out the guard room and down the hill. And some would go to workshops, some would go down to the airfield and some would go to the school. About twelve — march back. Dinner. Down again. Marched down again and you’re probably a different, different place the next time and you’d go down the airfield in the morning. You were probably in schools in the afternoon. The schools cover all the theories. Worked everything out there. You’d do practical jobs. You’d dismantle it and assemble it again and various components on the aircraft. Engine fitters would be running the engines and the airframe fitters would be doing this that and the other and instruments were all covered. It was training. We would manage to get a few extra aircraft. I started off with a, with a Hampden bomber and a Hawker Demon and we had all kinds of jobs on that. We had to go over and do fabric work. You know to strip a fabric wing and build it up and repair inside. The type of wood used, the glue used and there are pins and rivets. The balance of the aircraft had to be rigged properly with a, with a straight edge, straight edge and get a bubble right in the middle, on whatever you set it at. Wing incidents. Dihedral tail. The fin slightly offset perhaps. The hinges – no play in the hinges. No play in the aileron hinges. No slack in the controls. Even had to polish the glass in the windows. Make sure everything works properly. Sliding hoods. The tyres of course had to be checked. They’d be taken off. Brakes checked to see that they worked properly. Assembled on again, undercart jacked it up, undercarriage actions. Check the hydraulic pressures. When everything’s been signed up you sign up and the NCO would sign over the lot and that’s it. The aircraft’s serviceable and nothing was allowed out until the last signature was there and it wasn’t even flying unless the pilot signs it as well. So it’s all covered. If anything goes wrong pinpoint who did it, who did what and when and who checked it. So it was a double check. Treble check. The safety of the aircraft must come first.
CB: Ok.
[Recording paused]
KH: There wasn’t much.
CB: Wait. We’re just talking about what Ken and his colleagues did in their time off.
KH: Well we took part in sport. I myself played rugby and so I used to go with the rugby team. I also did, what was it? Had to go for long walks. There was walking gangs. There was PTI down on the, down on the airfield. The PTI instructor would have us all out, arms wide, touch your fingertips all along in a line — two lines, three lines, four lines and as he did the manoeuvre and everybody followed him. Jumping up and down, arms waving, legs doing this, that and the other. Running on the spot and all this sort of thing you know and then always march. March back and, invariably with the band. The band were a pain in the ass. They used to go down in the drying room there practicing and it was din and you’re trying to gen up on a book and there was the bloody noise of these blokes trying to play these instruments. Banging their bloody drums. [laughs]
CB: Nightmare.
KH: But you had to live with it, you know. You learned to live with it. Practicing the bagpipes. They used to go up in the woods with the pipes. That was a good thing.
CB: At Wendover.
KH: In fine weather. Up in Wendover. Yeah. Heard them wailing away out there. They’re terrible things when you can’t play. If you play it properly it sounds good but pipes are terrible when they can’t play.
CB: So when you are then on a squadron we are on the front line effectively. What, how did the time off come and what did you?
KH: Well I was young in those days on the squadron. During the Battle of Britain it was, I can’t remember what I did. I just can’t. Because it was all work. I didn’t have much time off. I never went on holiday that summer. Some blokes used to go because they had a death in the family or something. I felt sorry for them but we took no leave. I couldn’t. I didn’t take any leave to go all the way down to Wales. Took a day and a half to get home some times and down again with the old puffer trains and this that and the other so I never bothered. Just go with the lads down to the village, to a pub and have a game of darts and this that and the other. Whenever possible if there was an organisation or sport I used to put my name down to play rugby and I did very well at that. Although I was small I was scrum half. Put the ball in. Talking about rugby I got in the desert in Egypt and the scrum down and the sand was blowing up the dust and you had the ball to shove in to the scrum and you could hardly see the hole to put the ball in. And the dust would cake around your mouth and you were covered in it and it were — [laughs]. Then again in Berlin I played rugby in the Olympic Stadium, Hitler’s Olympic stadium and snow was on the deck there. On the grass. And we played in three inches of snow. We played rugby there. So there’s a contrast for you. Desert and snow. But mainly it’s a grotty old station camp, station field which had probably got a slope in it and probably a low end where there was a load of mud and a dry end up the top but you adapt yourself to all these conditions and sometimes to your advantage.
CB: Good. Thank you.



Chris Brockbank, “Interview with Ken Hicks,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed June 19, 2024,

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