Interview with William Arthur Coulton


Interview with William Arthur Coulton


William Coulton was born in Derbyshire and worked as an errand boy for the Co-Op until he joined the Royal Air Force in 1943, aged 18. He trained as a flight mechanic and was posted to 115 Squadron at RAF Witchford where he worked on Lancasters. He was later posted to Palestine with 32 Squadron where he worked on Spitfires. He was demobbed in July 1945 and married his girlfriend Hilda Elsie who he had met serving in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute. After the war he moved to North Luffenham and worked as a motor mechanic.



IBCC Digital Archive




Gemma Clapton


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01:14:51 audio recording





Temporal Coverage


CB: My name is Chris Brockbank and today is 20th October 2016, and we are in Freemantle Court, near Stoke Mandeville, Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire and we’re with William Arthur Coulton who’s going to tell us about his experiences in the RAF on the ground. So Arthur what are the earliest recollections that you got of life?
AC: The earliest – Twyford, at Twyford, the village of Twyford in south Derbyshire. Yes, I – the fourth, three or four – yes – south Derbyshire.
CB: That’s where you lived?
AC: That’s where we lived, we lived in the the holdall [?] of south Derbyshire Twyford had been put into two two houses. Yeah, two residence. Went to school, the village, the little village school, well a matchbox school I went back some years ago to see the place and I was surprised how small the school was. Yes. And we left, we left Twyford. My father worked, a farm worker and he got a job in Ash— Ashford or near Ashford. We went to live up there and he had the misfortune to get gored by a bull and he, he never worked the bulls for four years, and that that finished his farm working, and then he went to work in the foundry of all places. Yes, yes. [Background noise]
CB: And then where did you go from there?
AC: Where where did, where did the – we went to live at Holbrook in Derbyshire. Yes, ‘cause its two Holbrooks you know? One in Lincolnshire, and my parents stayed there for the rest of their lives. And actually I’ve got a young sister still lives in Holbrook and from there I joined the air force.
CB: When when did you leave school?
AC: 14.
CB: At 14?
AC: Yes.
CB: And what did you do then?
AC: When I left school? I went to work for Derby Co-op. Yes, I went as errand boy at Derby Co-op. and I stayed with Derby Co-op until I was 18, joined the air force. Yes.
CB: Why did you join the RAF and not one of the other services?
AC: To be quite honest, you want the honest there?
CB: Yeah.
AC: I didn’t want to be gun fodder. I didn’t want to join the army. I didn’t want to be in the front line. That’s me being honest about it.
CB: That’s good.
AC: Of course, I was in the ATC, so you automatically you got the preference to go in the air force and I enjoyed the air force. I trained as a flight mechanic. I –
CB: Where did you join up?
AC: In 1943.
CB: Where?
AC: At Birmingham. That’s where I went through the details, at Birmingham, and when I joined up from Birmingham we went to – oh, we went to Cardigan [?] and we got issued with our uniform at mob office yes. And then I got – where’d I go then? I got posted to me square bashing at Skegness. When they told me I was going to Skegness, I asked me Sergeant if I had me bucket and spade. He said, ‘You won’t have a chance to use it.’ [Chuckle].
CB: He said it a bit more bluntly than that though?
AC: Pardon?
CB: He said it a bit more bluntly than that.
AC: Yes. Yes yes. Yes he did.
CB: You horrible little man.
AC: Yeah I was a horrible little man.
[Shared laughter]
AC: Yes. I I — do you know Skegness?
CB: Yes.
AC: Imperial Hotel? I know that place very well. That was our mess hall and I know what the cellar was like. I got fatigues down there more than once. [Laughter]. Yes. I was a bad lad, I got caught you see. The policy is that do anything you like as long as you don’t get caught. That’s the —
CB: That’s a cardinal rule?
AC: Pardon?
CB: It’s a cardinal rule.
AC: Yes.
CB: Yes.
AC: Yes. I got caught several times.
CB: Right.
AC: Yeah, I was —
CB: So what did you learn there? When you weren’t misbehaving.
AC: What did I learn? I was trying to find out how I could get away with it. You know to find the loopholes. [Chuckle]. Oh dear. I didn’t do too, too bad. No.
CB: So what did the course, this is a training course, Initial Training Wing, this is the training wing —
AC: Square bashing.
CB: Yeah.
AC: You know, up and down, marching like a lot of silly hooligans. Yes, and what they call the Commando course running around in a woods there with barbed wire, yeah and that, and one of you had to lie on it while the others run over you. That wasn’t very comfortable – you had to take it in turns. Yeah. You lay on barbed wire. Not very nice
CB: No.
AC: Yeah.
CB: What was worse the barbed wire or peoples feet on your back?
AC: I would say people’s feet on ya. Yeah.
CB: Okay, so what else did you do?
AC: Yeah. They put —
CB: They —
AC: They put — and that was at Skegness that was, where we did the training. And then we was what you was going to be, you was sent to them them units. And first of all they sent me to Newcastle-on-Tyne of all places. And I was there on me own, with you know, I didn’t go anyone else. Then I went on my own to Weston Super Mare to Lockheed, you know that?
CB: I do know. But just quickly what did you do at Newcastle-on-Tyne? What was the purpose of that?
AC: Just — just waiting patiently.
CB: A holding unit?
AC: Yes.
CB: Okay.
AC: Yes. Then I went to Lockheed and I did me engineering course there.
CB: How long did that last?
AC Pardon?
CB: How long was the Lockheed course?
AC: Erh. Was it? Was it 16 weeks? I think it was. I’m not certain now and then we went to — was posted and I was posted to to Newmarket. And the engineer — the sergeant said to me, ‘Where you going?’ I said, ‘Romney Marsh [?], Newmarket.’ He said, ‘You’re going to a holiday camp.’ I said, ‘As good as that?’ And it showed me how good it was. [Laughter]. It was it was — You couldn’t beat beat Newmarket. It was lovely.
CB: That was on the racecourse then was it?
AC: On the racecourse, yes.
CB: So, what was so really special about it?
AC: Pardon?
CB: What was really special about it?
AC: Well, you could just say. Freedom. You know you was in the forces but you had a free life like. Yes. And our billet was a Nissan hut in Frank Buttress’[?] paddock, one of his paddocks. There was about 12 Nissan huts in there, and he didn’t mind you going round the stables, looking at the horses. I went round one day and a blinking horse — I — [unclear] all at was it nipped me. I I, well that’s the end of my life with horses. [Chuckle]. Yeah. But I liked Newmarket. That was a good station to be on. I was there 10 months and then they posted me to 115 Squadron at Witchford, Ely and I stayed there right to the end of the war. And I was on A and B aircraft as a flight mechanic.
CB: So you’re a flight mechanic, and A and B were the tasks that you did, so what were those?
AC: A and B was the two aircraft.
CB: Right.
AC: A and B and the number — what you call it — the code number was KO. That was the aircraft, KO. And we went to, when the war ended and I went to North Luffenham. Have you ever been there?
CB: I know, lived there.
AC: Pardon?
CB: I used to live there.
AC: Yes. I went to North Luffenham and I remustered into the MT [?] as a motor motor mechanic. And I stayed there for about four weeks, I think. And I was working on an American claptrap[?] vehicle. And a chap came along out of the distance and waving the papers and said, ‘You’re posted overseas.’ Well I said, ‘If that’s if that’s the case I’m packing up here now then going.’ And I went overseas. I went to Palestine and I was with 32 Squadron Fighter Squadron. Famous 32. Yes, and they had Spitfires but I was in the MT then and I worked in the vehicles, and we went into Jordan on exercises with the army and from there, went back there. Yeah I was demobbed. I got my demob come through while I was at there at Palestine. Was it? No. Sorry no. At North Luffenham that was where I got me notification of demob and I got demobbed. I went to work in the local garage.
CB: Where?
AC: Ely.
CB: In Ely?
AC: Cambridge.
CB: Right.
AC: Yes. And then I did five years in there.
CB: How did you come to do that in Ely when you were in from North Luffenham?
AC: What?
CB: Why did you choose Ely when you were stationed —
AC: I got married.
CB: — at North Luffenham?
AC: I got married. She come from Ely.
CB: Oh right. Sounds a pretty compelling reason.
AC: Yeah, I got a photograph of her there.
CB: Yeah, we’ll have a look.
JS: She’s lovely.
AC: Eh?
CB: We’ll look in a minute. Yeah.
AC: Yeah. I I was stationed at Witchford at Ely. You know the aerodrome. Witchford. That’s how I come to meet the wife and, of course, when I got demobbed, I went I lived in Ely, went to work at the local garage.
CB: Hmm.
AC: And I stayed there till one day a coal merchant who I knew quite well, he was only a bit older than me came in and asked me if I’d go and run a dairy business for him he’d bought. I mean all above all things from a mechanic to a dairy. I said, ‘Yeah I’ll go, Joe. I’ll have a go.’ And I stayed with the milk industry for 33 years and then I retired. Yes, I built up a good business. I amalgamated with another dairy. We we had a good business. We had nearly 6000 customers
CB: Hmm.
AC: We had quite a quite a business and, well, we had 14 men work for us.
CB: Hmm.
AC: Yes but I say we — that was hard work. It is hard working in the dairy trade. Yes.
CB: What’s the hardest thing about working in the dairy trade?
AC: Delivering the milk and satisfying the customers. Yeah you get a lot of dissatisfied people if you was a bit late. They never realised that they could have had extra milk and kept always had a bottle in hand. That’s what — there’s a lot of people like that. Yes.
CB: So you met your wife when you was at Witchford?
AC: I met her at Witchford.
CB: What was was she in the RAF?
AC: She was in the NAAFI.
CB: Oh was she, right.
AC: I was a canteen cowboy.
CB: What was her name?
AC: Hilda Elsie.
CB: Hilda and she was a canteen cowboy.
AC: That’s was that they called them you know. They called —
CB: Not cowgirl?
AC: If you was a NAAFI girl, you was a canteen cowboy. [Laughter] Yes.
CB: And was her tea any good?
AC: Pardon?
CB: Was her tea any good?
AC: Ehhhh. Not too bad. I did know one thing about it. I used to get egg and chips.
CB: Oh.
AC: The chaps used to say, ‘Where’d you get your egg from?’ I said, ‘Hilda brought for me.’ They said, ‘Will she get me one?’ They wouldn’t ask her. [Laughter] ‘Cause her parents got poultry.
CB: Oh.
AC: Yes. So I got egg and chips, I did.
CB: Interesting. So you settled down for the five years in Ely, but actually you continued in that area did you with the – with the milk?
AC: Yes. Oh Yes. Oh yes I continued in that area.
CB: Hm.
AC: But — and the dairy ran —we got progress — we got a bit of land and we build a dairy to — the purpose was to vehicles. And we had — eventually we had all electric vehicles. We had one electric vehicle that could 55 miles, around Cambridge doing 55 miles.
CB: Hm.
AC: Didn’t do —it was never more than 88 miles through the premises, but it got the capacity for 55 miles. Yeah.
CB: So what was the area that you were serving? It was Ely and the villages, was it?
AC: The villages, yes and Ely and surrounding villages. Yes.
CB: To what extent did you use your engineering skills —
AC: Kept the vehicles —
CB: — after the war.
AC: Kept the vehicles going.
CB: As well as running the business.
AC: Yes. Well I had a partners and I used to look after the vehicles. Yeah. I got a dab hand at the electric vehicles. Yes.
CB: Now, going back to the RAF when you went to your training at Locking [?], what did they do to train you from scratch to be an aero—engine mechanic?
AC: Yes. We we had in this big hanger, we had sections set off in bays and there was in our gang there was 15 of us. The the instructor, he was a sergeant who instructed us and he instructed us on engineering and I really really liked it there.
CB: So how many bays would they have in the hanger? Was there a different — did they do a different task in each bay?
AC: Of all the things what we had in the hanger, we had Blackburn Botha did you know about them?
CB: — Yeah. Blackburn Botha. Yeah.
AC: They got two of them. Yes. [unclear] Our job was to strip them and put them back again.
CB: Yeah.
AC: You strip the engine down. Rebuild it and put it back again.
CB: What were those engines? Were they radials? Or were they inline?
AC: Inline. Yes. Yes. Inline.
CB: And what other engines did they have as well.
AC: I I can’t think of what — a Sabre engine.
CB: A Napier Sabre?
AC: Yes. Yes. I can’t think what aircraft that was out of.
CB: That was off the Typhoon.
AC: Was it? I know it was a big engine.
CB: Yeah. 27 litres.
AC: Yeah.
CB: And did you have Merlins there or where was your introduction to the Merlin?
AC: Yeah there, but it was the early Merlin. The Merlin Mark I of all the things to teach us on. Yeah the really early — Christopher. Come from the Boar War I think. Yes.
CB: So, if you had — if there were these bays, you stayed in the bays did you, as a group of 15?
AC: Yes.
CB: And learned all the aspects of engine repair and maintenance. Is that right?
AC: Yes. Yes that’s right. We were instructed on it and you had diagrams and you drew diagrams, and — I can’t think how many was on there. But I but I really enjoyed it. I liked the job.
CB: It was a mixture of hands on and classwork was it?
AC: Yes.
CB: So, did you — you had a notebook that you kept?
AC: What?
CB: You had a notebook in which you progressed —
AC: Oh yes.
CB: — your training.
AC: Yes. I I, though I say it myself I think I was a good mechanic, but was I good? When I went into Civvy Street at the local garage at Ely. The first job the foreman said to me, ‘I want you to rebuild that engine there and put it in a car.’ And it was all in bits. And he’d re — it. So I rebuilt it. I’d never seen it before. It was all in tin boxes in bits. Yes. So I built it. I went [unclear], it went when I put it in the car. Yes.
CB: What was his reaction to that?
AC: Oh, he thought I was all right. Thought I was a good bloke.
CB: Yeah.
AC: Well, there’s there’s about 12 of us mechanics in the garage. Three of them were ex RAF men. Yeah so — we did all right.
CB: And in your training, you had this group with you, so the 15 in the bay, were they — did some of them move along with you or did everybody go to somewhere quite different?
AC: Yes. Two of them — went, when we finished, two of them went with me to Newmarket. One was named Chris Rudge [?] and I can’t think of the other ones name. But but this Chris Rudge [?] had a bad reputation. He — nobody liked him.
CB: No?
AC: Instead of calling you a ‘B’, he called you a ‘Got blood like Rudge.’ That’s what they used to say. Yes.
CB: Right.
CB: So he was the one who was disruptive, was he?
AC: Pardon?
CB: He was disruptive influence in the —
AC: Yes.
CB: — in the bay.
AC: Yeah, nobody liked him. No.
CB: And what was you classified as? You were cadets at that stage, what rank?
AC: No, we weren’t classed as cadets. I was a — I was a LAC. Yes I was LAC then and, of course, the flight mate can’t go any more than a LAC until he remusters [unclear]. That was my biggest mistake. I didn’t remuster. See If I had remustered —
CB: Why didn’t you remuster?
AC: I never thought I was — I was young and silly. See I I was 19 and I hadn’t got a clue what – I was young and silly. Yes. I regret it but never mind I learnt more when I went in the garage job. I had a good experience.
CB: What time of the year were you are Locking [?]
AC: Locking? [Pause] Yeah, autumn. Yes, ‘cause I went down Weston—Super—Mare. Had a girlfriend there and we walked round the Winter Gardens. Yeah, and it was autumn. Yes. That brought back memories that does. Cor she was half —
JS: [Laughter]
AC: Memories, eh?
CB: So she wasn’t in the Air Force?
AC: No, she was civvy girl. Civvy girl. Yeah.
CB: So, she showed you all the excitements of Weston-Super-Mare?
AC: Very. Definitely. Weston-Super-Mare there’s not much there.
CB: That you didn’t know about?
AC: Eh?
CB: That you didn’t know about?
AC: No [Laughter]
CB: Particularly, the places that were difficult to find you in?
AC: Yes.
CB: Down the pier?
AC: Pardon?
CB: Along the pier?
AC: How long was I there?
CB No, no the pier.
AC: Oh beer.
CB: Pier pier.
AC: Yes.
CB: And when you travelled, how did you get around from Locking [?] to Weston-Super-Mare? Did you walk, cycle or bus?
AC: [Mumble] From Locking [?] to Weston-Super-Mare it’s only two miles.
CB: Oh right.
AC: You walked. Yes. Yeah. Then you crept in — when you crept into camp you went through the hedge, the hawthorn hedge. That was — there was a gap and you crawled through it. You missed — you missed the guardroom then.
CB: Yeah.
AC: Naughty boys. [Chuckle]
CB: What was the accommodation when you were at Locking [?]?
AC: Pretty warm. Wooden purpose — built buildings. They had wood corridors from the rooms. You never went outside to get a wash, you went down these corridors to the ablutions. Showers. Was — as I say it was pretty warm building. Yeah. Locking, I understand the Fleet Arm have got it now.
CB: And when you went to Newmarket, what were you doing there? Was is it an extension of your training or what?
AC: No, I went there as a fully blown mechanic.
CB: Right. So what were you called then? Your title.
AC: [Mumble] I was LAC. Leading aircraftsman.
CB: But did you were an aircraft mechanic or were you a —
AC: Aircraft mechanic.
CB: And what aircraft were you on there? Was there a squadron that you were —
AC: Spitfires.
CB: Spitfires right.
AC: Lovely old Spitfire. We used — used to love to get in them and warm them up in the mornings. Oh that was the best bit about that. Squadron Leader West was the CO. There was only six Spitfires. Was only a little group of u, but we had a good time until he decided to post me and he posted me to Ely, Witchford —
CB: Yeah.
AC: — on Lancasters, and I always remember I went you went into see the CO and he said to me,: ‘What do you know about Merlins?’ That was it. And I said, ‘Well, I was on Spitfires.’ And he didn’t like that answer. He didn’t like it at all.
CB: ‘Cause he was a bomber man?
AC: Well, the Spitfire has got the same engine, ain’t it?
CB: Yeah.
AC: [Chuckle] He didn’t like it. So,I made an enemy with him first of all.
CB: How well did you adapt to the bomber activity?
AC: Ohh lovely. I had a good crew. I had a good — I was with a good mob. I was with a real good mob. We had a Sergeant [unclear] Wakeman [?] He was a real a real gentleman. He was he was a nice chap [unclear]. We called him [unclear] we didn’t call him Sergeant. So we know how how good he was. But, of course, the Air Force had a better relationship with everybody than they did in the army. Definitely. Yes.
CB: So were you on the flight line or were you in a hanger?
AC: I was on the dispersal ramp side.
CB: Right.
AC: Yeah. That was the best place to be to get the ‘flip-up’. Yes.
CB: So what what would get you the trip up in the aircraft? What what was the —
AC: Where’d we’d go in? Lancasters.
CB: No no. How did you manage to get the flights.
AC: Oh, we’d get one easy as pie.
CB: [Cough] For what reason?
AC: Just just as the crew said, as the pilot said, ‘Can I have trip up with ya?’ He’d say, ‘Get in.’ You weren’t supposed to but you get in.
CB: So why would he be flying at that moment?
AC: Pardon?
CB: Would he be flying for air test or cross country or what?
AC: Air test. Air test or — yeah, what’s it? Air gunners practice in the [unclear]. Yes. Oh, went up several times. Well well the — on dispersal when a Squadron Leader an Australian, Robbie, had — what ya got to do is say, ‘Robbie, can I come up?’ And he said, ‘Jump in.’ [Chuckle] You weren’t supposed to but we used to get in. He’d take one of ya. Two of ya. And then you — I got up to the front as a Flight Engineers seat to get a bit of practice. I thought it were quite nice. As I said, I enjoyed my life in the Air Force. I really enjoyed it.
CB: Yeah
AC: I wasn’t one of these that wanted to go home to mother. No. It it was nice. Yeah.
CB: What sort of routine did you have on the squadron?
AC: Maintenance.
CB: Yeah.
AC: Yeah just maintenance.
CB: But but what time would you get up? And were you on a shift or how did it work?
AC: Yeah it it – there was no such thing as shifts. You was all in a crowd. You know, you got —I think there was about seven of us in our mob. We had to look after two aircraft. Yeah, A and B. [unclear] What was that? And eh, what else was there? I was there I was there till the end of the war at Witchford and A carried a big bomb. You know the big 22000lb.
CB: The Grand Slam.
AC: Pardon?
CB: The Grand Slam.
AC: Yeah, the Grand Slam. That big ‘un. Yes. I carried that —
CB: So that was a modified Lancaster to make it fit?
AC: Oh yes, it it – the bomb bomb doors was differently. They lapped around the bomb.
CB: So who did the modification for that?
AC: [Unclear]
CB: You did it.
AC: No.
CB: On the airfield?
AC: No, I did it — the Air Force did it in the hanger [?]. And that was a pity, I never I never — I should have asked to have gone in the hanger to make it work. I would have learnt more. But, as I say, I was young and silly and having a good time at the dispersals.
CB: So on the dispersal, what were the tasks you had to do in a day?
AC: Main — maintenance on the engine. Yeah, giving a check over and that.
CB: So would you have a ladder for that or a gantry?
AC: A gantry. Yes, yes used to have a gantry. And, course you, you walked over, over the wings and that and you sat [unclear] screwing the tops in. Yeah, wasn’t weren’t supposed to — you were supposed to use the gantry.
CB: But but nobody fell off?
AC: [Chuckle] Well you know [mumble] when you change the engine at the dispersal. They used say ‘Put the fan on and then they’ll think we’re finished.’ That was the propeller.
CB: Yeah
AC: [Chuckle].Yeah.
CB: So, you could do an engine change at dispersal, could you?
AC: Yes, yes. We used to change them there.
CB: What would be the reason for changing an engine?
AC: If it got over heated. Yeah, ‘cause they got over heated and burned the aluminium. The heads, the rocker cover, the nuts be melted — be melted into the aluminium when it got hot.
CB: So what would cause the engine to overheat?
AC: Well, lack of coolant. Yeah.
CB: So, it would be damaged by flak or enemy attack in some way would it.
AC: Oh yes, if it was leaking. Yes.
CB: And what was the coolant on those engines?
AC: Drycol.
CB: Right.
AC: Yes. The bloke who used to be in the hanger working on the Glycol tank. He had to take him into the sick bay and pump him out because he was drinking the stuff. You know it tastes like pear drops.
CB: And it made him high?
AC: Pardon.
CB: And it didn’t do him any good?
AC: Didn’t do him any good. No. Didn’t do him no good, but it tasted nice you see. That was the reason.
CB: So on the flight line, you’re — the aircraft you’re prepare it for an operation.
AC: Yes.
CB: What was the procedure for handing it over to the crew? How did they know that it was working?
AC: Well, they’d be notified by phone that — yes. It was when they expected it. It always come up with the kit. Yeah, I mean I changed one day while they were waiting — waiting to take off, I changed the hydraulic pump on the inboard — the starboard inner while the other engines were running. Yeah, yeah I did [unclear].
CB: So had this engine been running earlier?
AC: Yes.
CB: So it was a bit hot was it?
AC: Oh, yes it was well hot. But as I say I liked my job. I enjoyed my life on it. I used to volunteer to do it.
CB: And what was the link between the ground crew and the aircrew?
AC: Very close. Very close. They was very, very close.
CB: And was there one crew member more than the others or any of the crew members?
AC: All the crewmembers were like — I was on A and B, and they was flown by an Australian Squadron Leader, Robbie. We called him Robbie, and he name was Robertson actually.
CB: Right.
AC: We called him Robbie. And he, he was all right with us. You see the ground staff and the aircrew they had — well a close—knit unit, didn’t they? They they relied on you. Yeah, they were very close to ya. There was no ifs or buts about it.
CB: So you talked about clearance for their aircraft mechanically before it flew, when it came back what sort of debriefing did you have with the crew?
AC: Oh, we didn’t have any debriefing with the crew. All they said was if anything was wrong and that was done and the NCO used to ask us what was on the Flight Engineer and then that’s what we got set into. Yes.
CB: Was the main link between the Flight Engineer and the chief, the crew chief or would it be the other member of the —
AC: The Flight Engineer and the ground staff, he NCO and the ground staff was always very close. Yes, they consulted one another.
CB: And how many times did the aircraft come back damaged?
AC: Oh, I couldn’t tell ya. There was a lot of holes in it at times.
CB: And how did you feel about that?
AC: How did I feel? [Emphasis] I had the job of patching ‘em. You see I was on engines but I helped to do the patching. Riveting of a patch. Oh yes, some aircraft got real patchy. Yeah.
CB: When you say real patchy were there a number of — what sort of damage did the aircraft have?
AC: Well it, it would be shrapnel. Shrapnel holes ‘cause they were jagged. We put — just put a panel of aluminium over them. Yes.
CB: And how did you secure the aluminium plate?
AC: Pardon?
CB: How did you secure the —
AC: Rivet them.
CB: Right.
AC: Yeah, pot rivet them. Yeah the old pot rivets. Yeah. That was that was a regular job that. Yeah.
CB: There was a case in 15 Squadron of a Lancaster coming back without the rear turret because it had been knocked off by a bomb falling from above. Did you see that?
AC: We had the — I dunno whether if you read about the rear gunner what bailed out, well he come from Witchford. He was at Witchford, he was on ‘C’ flight and he bailed out and he shouldn’t have lived. When they got back, they found they got no rear gunner. [Chuckle]. And he was a prisoner of war. [Chuckle]
CB: So what had happened to him then? Why did he get out and how did he do it?
AC: I think he heard the pilot prepare to — you know, to bail out and he only gone to bail out and he didn’t hesitate. He opened the door and went. [Chuckle].
CB: With or without a parachute?
AC: With a parachute, but I’ll you what you looked a little bit sick when you saw the aircraft flying above ya and going home wouldn’t ya? And you was going down into captivity. [Chuckle] Oh dear. It wasn’t very nice.
CB: What other good stories do you remember about being at Witchford and 15 Squadron.
AC: Oh yes. That was one of one of them that — rear gunner bailed out and he shouldn’t have done. We — I was on A and B and they’re good, they do a very good [unclear] and I said Robbie was a pilot on it. Australian. He later went to make a Wing Commander and he was in charge of the Squadron. Yeah Robbie. We called him Robbie, that was something about it weren’t he?
CB: Well you were an ‘Erk’.
AC: Pardon?
CB: You were an ‘Erk’ and he was a —
AC: We called him Robbie —
CB: He was a senior officer.
AC: Yeah. You called Robbie. He didn’t mind. Well that was that the spirit between the aircrew and the ground staff, wasn’t it?. [Background noise]
CB: Absolutely. So that you got A and B aircraft —
AC: Yes.
CB: — the two aircraft, what about the other pilot? What was he like?
AC: Oh well, we had different pilots. It was mostly a Scotsman who used to fly. He was all right, but we did have a South African and he got his South African Air Force uniform. Khaki, and he always flew with his hat over the top of his helmet. Yeah.
CB: [Laughter]
AC: Yeah, yeah he did. His name was Martin. He [unclear] was a Flight Lieutenant then. Flight Lieutenant Martin. Yeah. ‘Course we used to say he was dog biscuits, Martin Dog Biscuits, and we used to collar, collar the blokes when the NAAFI van used to come round. The officers were there and the aircrew used to collar them to pay for their tea. [Chuckle].
CB: How did you divide your time between the two aircraft?
AC: Well when we — if the aircraft had gone off you stayed in the the dispersal hut. You played cards. Gambled.
CB: No, but I mean that you had A and B aircraft, so how did you divide the work between them?
AC: Well you got to which either one it was. You went on, no matter which one. Flight Sergeant told you which aircraft you gotta do and you went on it. There was no difference. All, all I could say was B was a dirty aircraft . Oil leaks. You couldn’t stop the oil leaks. She used to leak oil all over the under cart. Yeah.
CB: So that was one of the inner engines?
AC: Engines yeah. Yeah. You naturally changed it.
CB: Right
AC: Yeah took the engine out. ‘Course the engines always went back to Rolls Royce at Derby.
CB: Oh did they?
AC: All the all the engines used to go back for maintenance. If you took one out that went to Rolls Royce. Yes.
CB: So one that you put in would always be new?
AC: Yes. Yes.
CB: And how long did it take to change an engine?
AC: About — I couldn’t truthfully say. Would I should imagine about four hours. Five hours.
CB: Taking one out and putting one in.
AC: Taking one out and putting all the connections in. Pipes and that. Yes.
CB: And was the engine raised by a lift? Or by a crane or how did it —
AC: We lifted them up by crane. We used to get, you know the, the coals —
CB: Coal cranes.
AC: We used to get him to come along and hook it up and hook it up and that’s how we did it. Just there’s only four bolts holding the engine in.
CB: Oh.
AC: That’s all that holds it in. So that the cradle, the engine’s on a cradle actually and they just pushed it in and put the four bolts in. Then you collected all the wires and hosepipes up, the pipes up. Yeah. Yes.
CB: Now in your quieter times and relaxation what did you do?
AC: Well, let’s say that I used to do a little bit of courting.
CB: Just one girl or more?
AC: Well, one or two but I ended up with one.
CB: Right.
AC: I married her.
CB: Fantastic.
AC: Yes. She a good girl to me. We was married for 52 years.
CB: Were you really?
AC: Yes. Yes she was good. She was the only child.
CB: And how many children did you have?
AC: One.
CB: Just David.
AC: Yes.
CB: Yes.
AC: I told them I’d lost the recipe. [Chuckle] [Shared laughter] Yeah. No, we only had the one.
CB: And they believed you?
AC: Pardon?
CB: And they believed you?
AC: Yeah. [Unclear]
CB: What would you say was the most memorable thing about your service in the Royal Air Force?
AC: Well comradeship was one of the best things, wasn’t it? There was something about during the war where you you was in a group of men and there was all youngsters like you. You know most of them was like all about 25 the oldest. That was a mess life, but it was a good life.
CB: And your accommodation at Locking was a pre—war shed, what did you get at Witchford.
AC: Nissan huts. Nissan huts.
CB: How many people in a Nissan hut?
AC: Twelve.
CB: And how was that heated?
AC: Heating was one of those combustion pot stoves in the middle. You know those cast iron things. You got nothing but fumes. I slept by the window at the end and I used to open the window but the lads didn’t like it, but if they come down and shut it, I used to get up and stop them.
CB: So, everybody suffered from the fumes.
AC: Oh yes, the stink of coke on the fire and the fumes was terrible.
CB: And even though you were all technicians you couldn’t stop the fumes?
AC: No, because they were all combustion stoves, you can’t stop it, can ya?
CB: What —
AC: Stinky things.
CB: What, what was it burning? Coke or coal.
AC: Coke. Yes. ‘Cause we’d run out of coke at one period and we managed to get some coke from the aerodrome from outside Bury St Edmunds. And I was in a gang of boys that went to shovel this coke onto the back of the truck to bring it back. Yeah. What a job.
CB: Did they did they notice that you’d nicked it?
AC: Pardon?
CB: Did they notice that you had nicked it?
AC: Yeah. Oh yes.
CB: [Laughter]
AC: Well we did nick it.
CB: How about the food? How did you feel about that?
AC: Well it just depends what camp you are on. Newmarket was a good, excellent. You couldn’t you couldn’t find fault in Newmarket, but Witchford was cruel. And I think the worse one — the worse one I think was Lockheed. It was — wasn’t anything special. They called themselves cooks but they weren’t anything special. No. Skegness. Oh yes, I forget Skegness. Now that was the worse. Skeggie was the worse food. We was at the Imperial Hotel that was our place and the food there was terrible. Absolutely terrible.
CB: And who were the people doing the cooking there?
AC: They had the people doing it.
CB: Civilians or RAF?
AC: RAF. It was all RAF. Yeah WAAFs cooking it. They’d have a couple of blokes probably and in charge was a Warrant Officer, and yeah that was terrible grub. And when we went to Witchford, we — I ordered — they supplied us, give us kippers for breakfast and they was off. They weren’t right. Everybody was throwing them away, and when the caterer – bloke came round, the officer came round and asked if there were any complaints. We said, ‘These kippers are rotten.’ He said he said, ‘They were in the mess. We complained about them in the officer’s mess.’ [Chuckle]. Oh, they were rotten things. I think the grub at Witchford was the worse one in the Air Force what I had. Yeah, definitely.
CB: So what was it that was so bad about it?
AC: It was the way it was cooked and presented. It was terrible. But the best place at Ouston, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne I was stationed up there. Now that was good. It was a trainer station that’s it and that was that was good there.
CB: So in today’s terms nutrition is very varied. There’s a huge choice. What did you actually have as a staple diet in the war as a ground tradesman?
AC: Well well, there was a potato, cabbage and you didn’t get peas that was a funny thing. See frozen peas came in after the war, didn’t they? So you didn’t get peas. We got cabbage, cauliflower, yes there was parsnips, carrots. I don’t eat parsnips. I think there are horrible things but —
CB: What about meat? What sort of meat did you get?
AC: Meat? I had beef. I reckon while I was in the Middle East we had camel. [Laughter] Yes. That’s what that was. That was stringy like. So, I reckon it was camel. Yeah. I brought back a lot of memories.
CB: Hm. That’s good.
AC: Pardon?
CB: And in your time off on the camp what did you do?
AC: On the camp? Time off?
CB: Yeah.
AC: Well well when you got your time off you didn’t stop off at the camp. You went out. You went out. I mean at Weston-Super-Mare at Lockheed there you’re supposed to book in at. Well we was bad lads you see. We came in late so we came through the hedge. [Chuckle]. Like real lads.
CB: But at Skegness because it was your initial training then you were more disciplined were you?
AC: Oh yes. Oh yes we had to off the street at 9 o’clock at night. Yes. I had the misfortune, I was eating fish and chips in the shop down there at Skeggie and these here two Military RAF police come by, saw me and it’d just gone 9 o’clock. He walked in, he said, ‘You’re not supposed to be out.’ They picked up my fish and chips, they took ‘em and told me to get back to the billet quick. [Chuckle] Rotten devils. I daren’t say nothing, dare I?
CB: It was a pity to waste them wasn’t it?
AC: Yeah, I daren’t say a dickie bird. Well, you see I was a raw recruit at Skeggie.
CB: Yes.
AC: Yes.
CB: So they kept you quite busy there?
AC: Oh yes, definitely. Oh yes. Yes. Marching up and down like a lot of hooligans and they took you on what they called an ‘Air Commando Course’. I could tell you, you had to go across these here three logs. Run across these three logs. Like — well like telegraph posts and they had barbed wire in the bottom of the water. So if you fell in it wouldn’t be very comfortable, would it? And you was with full pack and your rifle. I tell you what I didn’t like that. I run — when I got there I run over that. What they used to do, used to say, ‘Who’s the oldest in the mob?’ And I always remember there was a chap of 32. They sent him round, they said, ‘Right. Run round the [unclear] course.’ And they timed him and he told us we got to do it in that time. We — there was no slacking. If you if you didn’t do it in that time you’re sent round again. Yeah. So it wasn’t a holiday camp. Skegness wasn’t. No.
CB: Back onto the flight lines, so you’re working as an air mechanic, how did you link in with other people with skills like parachute packing, air traffic. Did you link in with people like that?
AC: We never come across the parachute packing and that. We never come across that. We we was more or less on the dispersal. I was just the crew there. You didn’t mix with any others. No. Well, you had —you was occupied. You was fully occupied. Then, of course, when the aircraft took off, you went out went out and got something to eat especially if it was night but you had a chitty and you walked into the messing hall, presented your chit and you got something. It was mostly egg and bacon. So we didn’t do too bad. It wasn’t too bad when it was night duty. It was quite good. Yeah.
CB: And when you did your initial training you had to do a lot of PT, how much exercise did they make you have on the airfields when you were serving there in the front line?
AC: We did get none. The only exercise you got your bike — your pushbike. You were given a pushbike and that was your exercise. Backward and forwards on the bike.
CB: So you got to dispersal on bikes.
AC: Yes. I had a Raleigh. My bike was. Yeah.
CB: How about NAAFI? How much did you use the NAAFI and what was it used for?
AC: The NAAFI? It was canteen, as I said I was a canteen cowboy. [Chuckle]
CB: Sometimes there was more attraction than others.
AC: Yeah, well I married her.
CB: Yeah
AC: I married the girl.
CB: Yeah, good move. So when did you marry?
AC: December the 1st 1945. Yes.
CB: And on that topic, before that you were de-mobbed, so what date were you de-mobbed?
AC: Well me de-mob leave went up to July, so I couldn’t tell ya exactly when I left the Air Force, but my de-mob leave ended in July.
CB: 45? [Loud background noise]
AC: Yes. And I got so fed with being at home I went to the local garage for a job and they set me on straight away. So I I was alright. Quite happy. Yeah.
CB: Right. We’ll stop there for a mo. Thank you very much.
AC: Okay, thank you.
JS: What’s that? [Background noise]
CB: Your wife was in the NAAFI but what about the other WAAFs? How much did airmen link with the WAAFs?
JS: Lots [Chuckle]
AC: Oh terrific. Terrific.
CB: Were there dances on the airfield?
AC: Yes yes. Well those at Newmarket there was a WAAF there ‘cause I hadn’t met the wife yet, and there was a WAAF there and she was a CO’s driver and she was, oh dear, she was a — and after I thought I’m gonna click here. So I so I got to know her well, but she was engaged. [Chuckle] She was engaged to a soldier. Yes.
CB: Soldier? Crikey.
AC: So I thought I was going to make hay but I didn’t. She was she was a nice girl. She came from Ilford.
CB: Oh
AC: That where she come from. Yes.
CB: So, these hangers were quite big and so you could get quite a good liaison behind the hanger in the evening could you?
AC: You could get three Lancs in there.
CB: Right [Laughing]
AC: If you if you — the bloke that drove the tractor knew how to manoeuvre them, you can get three Lancs in. That was quite good weren’t it?
CB: Yeah.
AC: To work on them.
CB: And then in time off, the you’d be behind the hanger.
AC: Yes. No, no I wasn’t one of them. I used to go down, I used to go down to Ely to go down the town. I used to go down with a lad named Maurice and we’d have a look around town and see if there were any girls there that we hadn’t met before. We was hunters. [Chuckle] It was a good laugh, wasn’t it?
CB: Yes, and so clearly, you had some good friendships there. To what extent did you keep in touch with old comrades after the war.
AC: Not, not so much. [Background noise] I had one chap, he came from Northampton I think he was one of the closest but at Ely I had — there there was a chap who’d been in the Air Force at Palestine. He lived at, he lived at Newmarket but he’d come to Ely. Yeah, come to look me up. Yeah, Freddie Claydon. Yes.
CB: So, what were the old times you were thinking about then? Being in Palestine? We haven’t talked about that, so —
AC: Palestine?
CB: What what was the routine there?
AC: Well, I was on the aircrafts. Would it? No. I was in the MT, didn’t I?
CB: Yes.
AC: I was in the MT and we had this here Warrant Officer Smudge Smith. He was — had a mobile office. And it was a metal thing and used to get terrifically hot inside. And Smudge, we used to call him. Warrant Officer. [Chuckle] I’ll tell ya, the Air Force had a good going with the, everybody else. We had an army boy. He he he was a batman to the army liaison officer with the squadron. He couldn’t understand how we got away with so much. He said: ‘I can’t get away like you do with the officers in the army.’ He said, ‘You RAF blokes, you’re not in the forces. You’re having the time of your life.’ We did. After I left square—bashing, I tell you what I never looked back. I didn’t write home to mother and say I wanted to come home. No.
CB: When you remustered what happened to your rank?
AC: Well, well, when I remustered, I was LAC. No, I stayed as a LAC ‘cause I couldn’t get any further until I took another course and I didn’t, that was me mistake. I should have taken took up [unclear] course. That was my mistake. That was the biggest mistake I made.
CB: In the desert in Palestine, were you in the desert or were you in a fairly well cultivated area?
AC: At a RAF station. At an aerodrome.
CB: Yes. Which was that?
AC: Pardon?
CB: Which one?
AC: I was at Ramat David, Ein Shemer, and Kalowinski [?] wasn’t it? Kalowinski. Yeah Ramat David, I rather like that. Ramat David. Yes.
CB: Was that because — why was that? What was special about that?
AC: Well we was on a bit of a hill and the Jews had got a nice vineyard and we used to raid it. We used to go get the grapes [chuckle] at night.
UNKNOWN FEMALE : Hello. Sorry.
CB: Hello. We’ll stop a mo.[Restart] So they’d got all these nice grapes but but the trees —
AC: The bushes.
CB: — the bushes, I mean to say.
AC: Yeah, well you just stand there and pull them off.
CB: So what did they do about that?
AC: Well, they didn’t do nothing ‘cause they couldn’t catch us, could they? We, we took them when they weren’t around. [Chuckle].
CB: What was the airfield, the bases was a well—established airfield, was it?
AC: Ramat David?
CB: Yes.
AC: That was, that was a, that was off the living quarters we weren’t on the living quarters were separate from the airfields. Well they had to be because the Jews used to go down and break glass bottles on the runways at night.
CB: Oh did they? Right.
AC: Right you see, you did your duties, I always got searchlight duty, and I had to maintain this searchlight and you’d whaff the searchlight round and you’d catch them. There they were breaking glass on the runways, yeah.
CB: So what, what —
AC: And we weren’t allowed to shoot them. We had to let them do it and in the morning we had to go and sweep it up. Yeah.
CB: And what was flying from that airfield?
AC: Spitfires and, err what was the American aircraft?
CB: Mustang?
AC: Mustang?
CB: Was it?
AC: Yeah Mustang. Yeah 208 208 Squadron had the Mustangs and 32 Squadron had the Spitfires. Yeah.
CB: So you were dealing with transport, what, what sort of schedule did you operate in a day because it was pretty hot in the middle of the day. So did you start in the —
AC: Yes the middle of the day. 12 o’clock you packed up. You packed up. Then you went back at 6 o’clock at night.
CB: So what time did you start in the morning?
AC: In the morning? 7 o’clock.
CB: And back at six till when?
AC: Yours — 7 o’clock till 12 o’clock but you had about — a break for a meal and then you went back at 6 o’clock at night till 8 o’clock. ‘Cause you didn’t do much — there weren’t much flying at night.
CB: So where — what could you do in you off duty times? Was it quite remote in this place?
AC: In Palestine the off duty time was very very sparse. We used to go down to Jerusalem and Nazareth. Yeah. Nazareth wasn’t too bad. Jerusalem was — Jerusalem was a holiday camp. The Jews used to pop you off when you went up the mountainside. Yeah.
CB: Just shoot you?
AC: Yeah pop at ya. Shoot ya. Shoot at ya. They had they had a crafty idea to go up to Jerusalem, on the bend of the road going up the hill mountain there, they built a pyramid of stones, so you go along the road and you’ve all a sudden you got this pyramid of stones in front of you. Then they they let go at ya. So it — Palestine wasn’t a comfortable place. No.
CB: How many people got hit?
AC: I couldn’t say. But I do — what was it? Was it six? Six airmen got shot at in Nazareth walking walking along the street by the alleyway a burst of gunfire, they got shot at. They got injured. Yeah.
CB: Did any get killed?
AC: No no.
CB: What about the —
AC: I was — pardon?
CB: Go on.
AC: I was there when the Jews blew up the front out of — the what was it called?
CB: The King David Hotel.
AC: King David Hotel. Yeah.
CB: Yeah.
AC: I was there then.
CB: Right.
AC: When they blew the front out.
CB: And what about the Arabs? Were they around or not it that area?
AC: Arabs? A funny thing was we got on well with them. We got well with the Arabs. I mean it was only later on that the Arabs turned because they didn’t get what they wanted. Well I couldn’t blame them. You see when the British forces moved out of Palestine like it was at our camp, Ramat David. The Jews was at the main gate when we was coming — gonna come out. They were waiting to go in and at the other side of the aerodrome there was the Arabs waiting to go on. So they had a fight. Well you know won, don’t ya?
CB: Hm.
AC: The Jews won.
CB: Yeah.
AC: The Arabs hadn’t got hadn’t got the ammunition and the guns like the Jews had. Yeah.
CB: So were you happy to leave or would you like to have stayed on in Palestine?
AC: I was really happy to leave. I was happy to leave. I didn’t think much of the place I can tell ya. No.
CB: Did you go on trips to other places in the area or did you stay in the camp?
AC: Oh yes.Yes, I was in the MT then, and we used to drive out to different places I was in I was near Damascus once, just on the outskirts of Damascus and we went all over the place, over the desert. One day we was off duty and the despatch rider said to be Geordie. He came from Newcastle, he said, ‘Arthur, I get— if I give you another motorbike,’ he said: ‘Shall we go out on the motorbike? In the afternoon, you see.’ So I said, ‘Yeah.’ So he got me an Indian motorbike? American Indian. Have you seen them?
CB: No.
AC: They’re like a Harley Davidson and he had the Harley Davidson, and we went in the desert and we had our revolvers and we were shooting at wild dogs until these wild dogs started to chase us. So we opened up and got out of the way. [Chuckle] It’s an exciting life in the Air Force.
CB: Clearly it was.
AC: I did enjoy it. I wouldn’t have missed it at all. I wouldn’t have missed it.
CB: Just going back to the wartime service at Witchford and Newmarket.
AC: Yes.
CB: Although you weren’t flying, officially, how many hours did you do in total?
AC: What flying?
CB: Hmm.
AC: I never took any recording — any record of it. If they were going up on air test, you say, ‘Can I come?’ and they said, ‘Jump in’ and you just jumped in. You didn’t get no parachute. So —
CB: Oh right.
AC: So you just jumped in. That was it.
CB: So where did you sit on take—off and landing?
AC: I I had the privilege of getting to the front of cockpit ‘cause I wanted to be a Flight Engineer. And I was always to the front with the pilot and the flight engineer all sat at the front there, on a canvas belt what the flight engineer sat on. Yeah.
CB: A number of people became aircrew because they had seen notices on boards in the army quarters and air force stations looking for — requesting people to apply for aircrew, did you never see one of those? What stopped you —
AC: Oh yes, I, I went originally for aircrew. I went originally for it and I passed me medical and I waited but never got called up for it.
CB: Oh. Oh right.
AC: They had too many didn’t they?
CB: They did [pause] ‘cause the losses didn’t continue as high as they thought they would.
AC: Pardon?
CB: The losses — aircrew losses.
AC: Yes.
CB: Diminished. So they didn’t have the demand quite that they had expected.
AC: There was no flying from Lockheed. No, Lockheed was a training camp.
CB: Yes, sure. Right, thank you very much indeed, Arthur.


Chris Brockbank, “Interview with William Arthur Coulton,” IBCC Digital Archive, accessed May 19, 2019,

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