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Saturday, May 9, 2015

Bill and Ted's Wartime Adventures, Part 2

A guest post by my truckbuddy Tim from England, now resident in Spain:

This week we conclude Bill and Ted’s adventures, but first a STOPRESS. Just the other week Russ discovered some papers that showed Bill was assigned for specialist training to Scott Field, Illinois (near St. Louis), with the 371st Technical School Squadron - the dates on the papers indicated he was there at least from July 15 to Sept 9, 1942. Scott Field was the main Radio School for the USAAF during WWII, where both operators and maintainers were trained. So it looks like our guess for Bill’s trade specialisation were correct. Here’s a lovely contemporary ‘linen’ postcard, hand coloured, showing recruits walking past the base’s proud slogan. I wonder if Bill sent one to the folks back in Florida?

Ted and the ‘American’ Merlin

Although America had not then officially entered the war, as early as 1940 plans were being made to build the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in America. Following failed talks with the Ford Motor Company, agreement for licensed production was reached with the Packard Motor Company of Detroit in September. The first engine ran just under a year later in August 1941. This gave the USAAF access to a more powerful V-12 aero engine than it currently possessed. It also gave Britain an alternative source of supply, away from the bombing of the Luftwaffe who targeted all aircraft-related factories. Here a Merlin is dissected in an American classroom!

The Packard-Merlin as it became known was to power the latest Spitfires, and Ted’s training in late 1943 was part of its service introduction. By the end of the year he was posted to the Air Ministry in London and became a member of the Aircraft Servicing Demonstration Party, or ASDP. This unit was charged with standardising engine maintenance procedures throughout the RAF. Ted’s role was to demonstrate the approved servicing actions, and to go and troubleshoot when problems were identified at operational bases all over the country.

He told me once about an incident he had at RAF Kemble, where they were having trouble with the new engines. His train arrived very late at night, having been held up by bombing, by which time there was no transport available, so he had to walk five miles in the black-out, arriving at the base in the early hours the next morning. He booked into the Sergeant’s Mess and got his room. No sooner was he asleep than the Station Warrant Officer, God’s right-hand man on any RAF base, called reveille and held a general room and kit inspection. Pa remained in bed, explaining he worked for the Air Ministry, and not the SWO!

The SWO was incensed and had Pa hauled off to the guard house on a variety of charges. Fortunately for Pa a phone call was made to London to discover who this troublemaker was. Pa’s Boss, Flt Lt Green, gave the SWO an earful about detaining ‘his man’ and ordered his immediate release. He also gave Pa an earful about maintaining friendly relations with the natives!

Bill goes to Europe

The Packard-Merlin also powered that legendary American fighter, the P-51 Mustang, which flew alongside another great American aircraft, the P-47 Thunderbolt, and it was with this aircraft that Bill now became involved. In early September 1944, he left the 8th Air Force, Rougham and Jackie behind and joined the 9th Air Force, which was headed for Europe. He crossed the English Channel to the newly liberated Belgian port of Ostend, and then on to the south of Brussels.

Another of Russ’s recollections was the clue to P-47 connection:

Daddy said you could tell what planes were coming overhead by the sound of their engines - the German planes, he said, sounded weak and tinny like a sewing machine - weeweeweeweewee - whereas our planes sounded heavy and formidable - WHAAAMWHAAAMWHAAAMWHAAAM. Now what kind of planes those were, or indeed what kind he worked on, I never did know and didn't think to ask.

Now an airman would not compare a bomber with a fighter, but like with like. German bombers famously made a droning noise because they did not synchronise the speed of their engines, so you got a discordant ‘beating’ sound. Bill was most likely comparing fighters. The German Messerschmitts and Focke-Wulfs had V-12 engines, famous for their hi-revving character, hence the weewee, sewing machine sound! The P-51 Mustang had the Merlin, also a V-12, but that made a beautiful burble. The only other US fighter of the time was the P-47 Thunderbolt. It had a massive 18 cylinder double radial engine, which went wham, wham wham!

The move took Bill from the 8th Air Force in the UK, essentially a strategic bombing unit, to the 9th Air Force, which was a much more tactical unit; using small bombers and ground attack fighters like the P-47, operating from bases close behind the advancing Allied troops. Since there was no commonality of airframes or engines between the two units, it’s probable that Bill was still in the radio/radar equipment trade. A common feature would have been the IFF, Identification Friend or Foe, a classified device for identifying an aircraft to friendly radar. It was fitted to most anything that flew by 1944.

The airfields Bill mentioned to Russ were all Advanced Landing Grounds, or ALG’s, and his tales of action suggest he was with close-support aircraft, again suggesting he was working with the P-47 Thunderbolt, which operated in the ground attack role very, very, close to the frontline. A serviceable IFF was extremely important because more aircraft in this role were shot down by their own side than by the enemy!

Although this clip was filmed earlier in France, it gives a very clear idea of what P-47 operations were like. Imagine this with cold, snow, air attacks and an ever present enemy, and you will still only be part way to understanding what Bill was going through in Belgium.

Ted goes to India with Lord Mountbatten

Ted had already started his travels prior to D-Day. Lord Louis Mountbatten had been appointed Supreme Allied Commander, South-East Asia Command. He and Lady Edwina Mountbatten, who usually accompanied him on his travels, had commandeered their own VIP aircraft, a brand new Avro York transport, developed from the famous Lancaster bomber. Here’s Ted standing in front of his beloved York, serial No. MW102.

To cope with the high altitude and humid temperatures it would encounter in Asia, it was powered by the latest Packard-Merlins, so Ted was chosen to join the other groundcrew who flew in an accompanying aircraft. At Lord Mountbatten’s insistence, MW102 had been fitted with plush seating, a conference room and separate sleeping compartments. Like him, it represented the Empire and was designed to impress. Later on Winston Churchill ordered one which was less opulent, apparently.

MW102 also boasted flushing toilets rather than the usual chemical ones, another of the Mountbatten’s whims. This proved notoriously troublesome, and was particularly unpleasant to repair. I once asked Pa if he had ever done this. “No fear, I was there to fix the engines, and that’s what I did. Fixing the toilet was the riggers job!”

Here he is (on the left) in at Ratmalana airfield in Ceylon with some of his mates. I didn’t recognise him at first; the use of Brylcream hair gel, very popular in the RAF in those days makes his hair look darker. But the ‘Turner’ nose gives him away! I’m sure he must have occasionally spoken with Lord Mountbatten, but most matters concerning the maintenance of the Packard Merlins would have been addressed through the plane’s pilot, a Squadron Leader from Scotland. His name was (I think) Duncan, and Pa thought he was an excellent pilot and a well-respected leader to the air and ground crews.

Being on Mountbatten’s team had its perks. In those days, British service men were given a basic ration of cheap cigarettes when serving abroad, but Mountbatten’s men received a tin of 50 Benson and Hedges high-quality cigarettes each time they serviced the aircraft, worth their weight in gold as an alternative currency!

Lord Louis and Lady Edwina apparently enjoyed an ‘open’ marriage and broad sexual tastes – both male and female. I wonder then if Lord Mountbatten, whom Pa idolised, advised him on some book purchases he made in aptly named ‘Happy Bookstall, Preedy Street, Camp, Karachi’ Two slim volumes, one was the Karma Sutra, and the other the Ananga Ranga. Very daring and risqué, possibly even illegal in England at the time! Perhaps it was the novelty value, or perhaps it was a source of relief for a single man away from home? And here they are, hardly used!

Amongst his memorabilia is a Security & Censorship chit, issued by the Karachi Airport Security Section, listing various censorable items, which included gramophone records, literature for the blind and playing cards! Obviously the Kama Sutra and its companion volume made it out somehow!

Ted’s travels in the far-east also included New Delhi, where he looked up the local Masonic Fraternity, as well as Columbo in Ceylon and Karachi (then also in India), but he rarely spoke of his times there. In later life he was never one for foreign food or travel, and I think the far-east must have taken him right out of his comfort zone as a young man who, until the war, had seldom left his home county. A shame, the thatched accommodation at Ratmalana looks rather exotic under the swaying palms here! However, the clue was in the name; Pa said, “The place was full of rats, great big horrible ones, and snakes and scorpions . . . I didn’t like it there.”

Bill in Belgium and Germany

Bill told Russ that he served in a number of ALG’s whilst in Europe, but those he specifically mentioned were Chaleroi, Namur and Liege, all in Belgium, and finally Aachen in Germany. If you look these names up on the map, you will see they reflect the progress of the Allies advance east into Germany. Life on these ALG's was very basic, with no hangars and the maintenance conducted in the open, there were very few comforts. Most airmen lived in tents, and what buildings they had were designed to be transportable, and so were flimsy and poorly insulated to say the least. It would have been physically tough.

The units were always on the move, sometimes backwards, as the front-line battles ebbed and flowed. And the enemy was ever present. The Germans were adept at leaving behind small, hidden groups of snipers and commandos as they retreated who would then attack and disrupt the advancing Allies as they moved over them. Russ recounts:

I did ask Daddy once if he ever shot anybody in the war; and he said quietly he wasn't sure, maybe. Apparently at some time or times, there was shooting by his unit at some Germans in the vicinity. He used some gun or rifle, but didn't know if he'd actually hit anyone; and how would you. Seems odd that air corps ground crew would be shooting at the enemy - I wonder if that was during the Bulge, when the Germans were trying to take back the ground they'd lost - no way of knowing now, though.

It’s quite possible this was during the famous Battle of the Bulge. The winter of '44-'45 was one of the worst in many years, as a result there was little flying by either side during the battle. But there was plenty of action on the ground; and the ALG’s at Namur and Liege were only 20 miles north of the battlefront.

However, on Jan 1st '45, the Luftwaffe launched Operation Boddenplatte (Baseplate). They threw everything they had at some twenty front-line ALGs. Although they achieved tactical surprise, and destroyed many allied aircraft on the ground, these were quickly replaced, so the Luftwaffe did not achieve the air superiority they had sought. Instead, their own losses in men and machines, which by now were irreplaceable, were such that they never mounted an effective massed operation again. This scene was typical of many ALG’s after the attack.

Russ again:

Of course, I don't remember all the stories now - really only one, about one day at the airfield somewhere in Belgium, the alert sounded and the Germans were flying over, I suppose bombing or strafing the place - everybody was running like mad for cover towards an old stone bridge nearby, I don't know if they had air raid shelters on those forward bases or not. Anyway, the whole time Daddy was making for the bridge amongst the crowd, he was calling for his good buddy, some little guy called "Shorty," natch, and telling him to hurry up and come on. Daddy was worried because he couldn't see Shorty anywhere. But lo and behold, when they reached the bridge - why, there was Shorty himself - he had run so damn fast, he had beaten all the long-legged boys to shelter! Very amusing, to hear my daddy tell it. . . .

Around the same time another incident took place that showed Bill’s moral convictions and sense of decency. Russ continues:

He had lots of funny stories like that, and made light of the grimmer aspects of things. Though he did say at one time, there was a German plane shot down quite nearby - other guys in his outfit had rushed over to it and were picking souvenirs off the dead pilot, his medals and scarf and pistol and such like - which Daddy wouldn't have anything to do with it, he thought it was wrong.

Death of a pilot – Herbert Maxis

Such incidents were not uncommon – Here is the sad tale of a young German SNCO pilot, Herbert Maxis:

On 1 January 1945, during Operation Bodenplatte, JG 53 (a Luftwaffe Fighter Squadron) had orders to attack the airfield at Frescaty, south of the ‘Bulge’ near Metz. Before reaching the target Herbert Maxis’s ME109 took hits from an American anti-aircraft position, the 455th AAA Bn., 'A' Battery stationed at Oberfelsberg. Maxis force landed only 200 yards from the American positions and was shot and killed climbing down from his aircraft. In some accounts the gun battery crew are reported to have believed the German was going to pull a pistol although he may have been merely pressing his hand against a body wound. Before the M.P.s arrived, the pilot had been stripped of his boots, flying jacket, Lueger pistol and dog-tags. Pte Billy Taylor of the 739th FA Bn remembers:

"The pilot carried out a perfect belly landing. Before I could get to the aircraft the pilot was shot dead and his flight tunic pulled off the body. He was lying in a pool of blood across the port wing root, his arms stretched out over his head. He had thick black hair, looked about 20 years old, perhaps less, and bore a strange resemblance to one of my cousins. He had been shot by one of my friends, Smith, as he was getting out of the aircraft. A grave registration detail took away the body and the next day, officers from HQ came to question Smith - they didn't think much of the fact that a German pilot had been shot in cold blood and left lying in his underwear. There was talk of courts martial but this idea was quickly abandoned when the brass learnt that the pilot had opened up on us at low altitude with everything he'd got."

Bill also witnessed the dawn of a new method of warfare when he spoke of seeing German rockets flying over. During those final months of the war in Europe, from September 1944 to May 1945, some four thousand V1 missiles and V2 rockets were launched against targets in Belgium. Mainly aimed at the Allied port of Antwerp, others were fired at Liege and a few at ALG’s. It would have been the VI, the Doodlebug, or Buzz-Bomb as it was known, and the precursor to today’s cruise missiles, that he saw. Their ominous buzzing noise must have sounded quite chilling as they passed overhead.


Then suddenly, and thankfully, it was over. With the final surrender of Germany’s armed forces, Victory in Europe, VE-Day, was declared on the 8th of May, 1945. Winston Churchill announced the news to a war-weary nation. Bill and Ted probably listened to this on the BBC. It was a momentous occasion and one we commemorate today on behalf of our fathers.

Doubtless there was much ‘clearing up’ to be done before the active units could begin to withdraw and the occupying forces take over in Germany. It was not until October that Bill left England and headed for home. For Ted it would be a while longer. But the end to their adventures was now in sight.

Bill goes home

I’ll let Russ conclude his father’s adventures . . .

Daddy told me he sailed on an old Liberty ship going over; on the return in '45, though, he was on the Queen Elizabeth. Somewhere I have a chocolate tin with a beautiful colour picture of the ship on the lid, which he bought and brought home as a souvenir; my mother eventually used it to keep sewing things in. However, I'm sure the ship was still in wartime camouflage when he sailed on her, and all the lovely interiors removed to accommodate thousands of GI bunk beds.

This clip shows the Queen Elizabeth making that voyage; can you see your Pa Russ?

What I do know is that it was a floating crap game from stem to stern all the way back to the States; and I think Daddy did very nicely for himself in that way. Somewhere I still have his pair of dice, a transparent red, perhaps an early kind of acrylic. Maybe they were transparent to show that they were not loaded, I don't know.

Well that's about all I know. Daddy returned home on the Queen Elizabeth, as I said, and was processed out at Camp Miles Standish, near Boston; then no doubt the long trip home from there was by train. That was October 1945; he told me had accumulated enough "points" to be sent home early, or earlier than some. Daddy had made Corporal during the war; but got busted back to private after returning late to base and being counted AWOL. I wish I knew the details of that; knowing my daddy, I strongly suspect that wine, women, and song were involved. Grin. But before the war ended, he had been promoted back to Corporal.

And certainly he was very fortunate to get through the war entirely unscathed, unlike many poor fellows from all sides. Of course "home" was his parents' house, where he had lived before the war. He had written or telegraphed them that he was back in the States and homeward bound, but without specifying an ETA. Many years later Grandma told me she was headed out the front gate one day with a cage of chickens in her hands, taking them somewhere to sell I guess - and then all of a sudden a car pulled up and out jumped her boy, home from the wars. "And I don't know what happened to my biddies," she said.

Ted’s adventure ends

Ted had returned earlier to England from India, around October 1944. The new year found him at RAF Hawkinge, a famous Battle of Britain airfield, resolving problems some Canadian Spitfire Squadrons were having with Packard-Merlins. Here is a signal, he sent at the time. Click for the original to see the detail. I don’t think it’s classified any longer.

You can see how the his role was not only to assist the front-line engineers, but also to appraise the Air Ministry of the operational status of the aircraft independently of the Squadrons, who may have been tempted to paint a rosier picture. And there was still time for some more courses before de-mob day. Two months after VE-Day, in July, he was at the De-Havilland’s learning about constant speed propellers, and in November, a month after Bill got back home, Pa was back in Derby at Lodge’s, learning about the latest advances in sparkplugs manufacturing. These were not trivial courses. The prodigious power output of the final versions of the Merlin, and its replacement, the Griffin, meant that propellers, sparkplugs, fuel pumps, indeed all associated technologies, had to keep pace as well.

This continued training after VE-Day suggests the RAF had further plans for Ted. Indeed he told me that he was offered employment by both Rolls-Royce and De Havilland’s. But he had other ideas and he left a clue in the notebook from that DH propeller course: The words, written in pencil in that small, neat hand of his, It had to be you. It was the title of a long popular love song. This was to celebrate his love for his childhood sweetheart, Peggy, it was their song.

In fact Ted did not leave the RAF until January 1946, from RAF Cardington, where he had joined in 1939. He remained on the reserve until 1948. His service record records states “. . . he has been most competent, reliable and conscientious. Both theoretically and practically his work has been most satisfactory and he has shown good initiative and has required little supervision.” And in those few clipped words, Ted’s six year adventure also came to an end.


I’ll let Russ sum up in his own words:

Well Tim I thank you so much for shedding light on my father's wartime service by your very clever detective work. As I say, till now I have never thought much or cared to research what he did exactly because he made so little of it. He was drafted, along with 10 million others, went to England, worked on some airplanes. And then came home. So what? No big deal. Not a very interesting story to my young ears. Certainly no glory, no glamour about it.

I never thought till this correspondence of ours that he was effectively at the front line there in Belgium, at risk of life and limb night and day. Which suggests a certain personal courage that was utterly lacking in any of his references to the war. None of those guys pointed to themselves as examples of bravery and fortitude - there was none of this modern attitude so unfortunately common now of "I am the greatest" and so forth. Just the bare fact of duty done, and then they moved on from there.

But now with your deductions I begin to see a clearer, much grimmer picture - and I can locate my father in it. All war is hell, of course, but I know that the Bulge was a particularly ferocious fight. Years ago, having Christmas dinner with a female college friend and her family, I listened with fascination to her dad, a great talker with a lovely old-time accent, tell his stories of the Bulge. He had been a research chemist before the war, and once in the service was made an Army officer - captain, let's say, I don't know the ranks very well. But he and his unit (tanks? artillery? whatever) were there in the Ardennes and in the very thick of it.

In fact, I sat with him and listened long after dinner was over and the rest of the company had moved to the living room. My friend rolled her eyes - she had heard it all many times before, it was "just Daddy's war stories" - but in listening to the old man, I felt some distant connection to my own father, who was no longer around to tell any stories.

As for me, I now see my father taken from a very sociable family environment and suddenly forced to grow up very quickly. There’s a determination, at times bloody-minded, to get the job done to the very best of his abilities. And then, having done that, to return to his family and friends, to carry on where he had left off.

His wartime experiences and his knowledge of aircraft inspired in me a passion for all things aeronautical. My own time in the RAF was heavily influenced by my father’s service. He was my role model and I’m very proud to have grown up in his image.

And for those of you who like to know what happened next:

Epilogue – Marriage and Fatherhood

On the 8th November 1945 Ted purchased a ‘hallmarked, solid gold faceted wedding ring’ for the princely sum of Two pounds ten shillings at Bravingtons Jewellers in London, and the next day he married Peggy, my mother to be. They had three days honeymoon in the Imperial Hotel in London at a cost of two guineas (two pounds and two shillings) a night, breakfast included, and then it was back to the RAF for his final 3 months of service!

When Bill got home to Florida in 1945 he took up his education again. Under the generous terms of President Truman’s GI Bill, he completed a long held ambition and attended law school through ‘46 and ‘47. There followed a whirlwind romance and marriage to Lee, Russ’s mama.

I arrived in 1952 and Russ in 1955.

And the rest, as they say, is history!


Davis said...

God bless those who gave their lives and those who risked their lives for the sake of civilization. Lest We Forget

Tim said...

Amen to that Davis.

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