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Chapter no 7 – ‌‌‌‌‌‌‌Flying Training‌

Going Solo

In November 1939, when the war was two months old, I told the Shell Company that I wanted to join up and help in the fight against Bwana Hitler, and they released me with their blessing. In a wonderfully magnanimous gesture, they told me that they would continue to pay my salary into the bank wherever I might happen to be in the world and for as long as the war lasted and I remained alive. I thanked them very much indeed and got into my ancient little Ford Prefect and set off on the 600-mile journey from Dar es Salaam to Nairobi to enlist in the RAF.

When one is quite alone on a lengthy and slightly hazardous journey like this, every sensation of pleasure and fear is enormously intensified, and several incidents from that strange two-day safari up through central Africa in my little black Ford have remained clear in my memory.

A frequent and always wonderful sight was the astonishing number of giraffe that I passed on the first day. They were usually in groups of three or four, often with a baby alongside, and they never ceased to enthral me. They were surprisingly tame. I would see them ahead of me nibbling green leaves from the tops of acacia trees by the side of the road, and whenever I came upon them I would stop the car and get out and walk slowly towards them, shouting inane but cheery greetings up into the sky where their small heads were waving about on their long long necks. I often amazed myself by the way I behaved when I was certain that there were no other human beings within fifty miles. All my inhibitions would disappear and I would shout, ‘Hello, giraffes! Hello! Hello! Hello! How are you today?’ And the giraffes would incline their heads very slightly and stare down at me with languorous demure expressions, but they never ran away. I found it exhilarating to be able to walk freely among such huge graceful wild creatures and talk to them as I wished.

The road northwards through Tanganyika was narrow and often deeply

rutted, and once I saw a very large thick greenish-brown cobra gliding slowly over the ruts in the road about thirty yards ahead of me. It was seven or eight

feet long and was holding its flat spoon-shaped head six inches up in the air and well clear of the dusty road. I stopped the car smartly so as not to run it over, and to be truthful I was so frightened I went quickly into reverse and kept backing away until the fearsome thing had disappeared into the undergrowth. I never lost my fear of snakes all the time I was in the tropics. They gave me the shivers.

At the Wami river the natives put my car on a raft and six strong men on the opposite bank started to pull me across the hundred yards or so of water with a rope, chanting as they pulled. The river was running swiftly and in midstream the slim raft upon which my car and I were balanced began to get carried down-river by the current. The six strong men chanted louder and pulled harder and I sat helpless in the car watching the crocodiles swimming around the raft, and the crocodiles stared up at me with their cruel black eyes. I was bobbing about on that river for over an hour, but in the end the six strong men won their battle with the currents and pulled me across. ‘That will be three shillings, bwana,’ they said, laughing.

 

 

Only once did I see any elephant. I saw a big tusker and his cow and their one baby moving slowly forward in line astern about fifty yards from the road on the edge of the forest. I stopped the car to watch them but I did not get out. The elephants never saw me and I was able to stay gazing at them for quite a while. A great sense of peace and serenity seemed to surround these massive, slow-moving, gentle beasts. Their skin hung loose over their bodies like suits they had inherited from larger ancestors, with the trousers ridiculously baggy. Like the giraffes they were vegetarians and did not have to hunt or kill in order to survive in the jungle, and no other wild beast would ever dare to threaten them. Only the foul humans in the shape of an occasional big-game

hunter or an ivory poacher were to be feared, but this small elephant family did not look as though they had yet met any of these horrors. They seemed to be leading a life of absolute contentment. They are better off than me, I told myself, and a good deal wiser. I myself am at this moment on my way to kill Germans or to be killed by them, but those elephants have no thought of murder in their minds.

At the frontier between Tanganyika and Kenya there was a wooden gate across the road with an old shack alongside it, and in command of this great outpost of Customs and Immigration was an ancient and toothless black man who told me he had been there for thirty-seven years. He gave me a cup of tea and said he was sorry he did not have any sugar to put into it. I asked him if he wished to see my passport but he shook his head and said all passports looked the same to him. In any event, he added, smiling secretly, he could not read without spectacles and he did not possess any.

Outside the Customs shack, a group of enormous Masai tribesmen holding spears were crowding round my car. They stared at me curiously and patted the car with their hands, but we were unable to understand each other’s language.

A little later on, I was bumping along on a particularly narrow bit of road through some very thick jungle when all of a sudden the sun went down and in ten minutes darkness descended over the jungle land. My headlamps were very dim. It would have been foolish to push on through the night. So I parked just off the road in a scrubby patch of thorn trees to wait for the dawn, and I sat in the car with the window down and poured myself a tot of whisky with water. I drank it slowly, listening to the jungle noises all around me and I was not afraid. A car is good protection against almost any wild animal. I had with me a sandwich with hard cheese inside it and I ate that with my whisky. Then I wound up the two windows, leaving just a half-inch gap at the top of each, and got into the back seat and curled up and went to sleep.

I reached Nairobi at about three o’clock the next afternoon and drove straight to the aerodrome where the small RAF headquarters was situated. There I was given a medical examination by an affable English doctor who remarked that six feet six inches was not the ideal height for a flier of aeroplanes.

 

 

‘Does that mean you can’t pass me for flying duties?’ I asked him fearfully. ‘Funnily enough,’ he said, ‘there is no mention of a height limit in my

instructions, so I can pass you with a clear conscience. Good luck, my boy.’

I was fitted out with a simple uniform which consisted of khaki shorts and shirt and jacket and khaki stockings and black shoes, and I was given the rank of Leading Aircraftman (LAC) which is one below a Corporal. Then I was led over to a Nissen hut where my fellow trainees were already installed. There were sixteen of us altogether learning to fly in this Initial Training School in Nairobi, and I liked every one of my companions. They were all young men like me who had come out from England to work for some large commercial concern, usually either Barclays Bank or Imperial Tobacco, and who had now volunteered for flying duties. We were to spend the next six months training together in very close association, and then we would all be separated and posted off to various operational squadrons. It is a fact, and I verified it carefully later, that out of those sixteen, no fewer than thirteen were killed in the air within the next two years.

In retrospect, one gasps at the waste of life.

At the aerodrome we had three instructors and three planes. The instructors were civil airline pilots borrowed by the RAF from a small domestic company called Wilson Airways. The planes were Tiger Moths. The Tiger Moth is or was a thing of great beauty. Everybody who has ever flown a Tiger Moth has fallen in love with it. It is a totally efficient and very aerobatic little biplane powered by a Gypsy engine, and as my instructor told me, a Gypsy engine has never been known to fail in mid-air. You could throw a Tiger Moth about all over the sky and nothing ever broke. You could glide it upside down hanging in your straps for minutes on end, and although the engine cut out

when you did that because the carburettor was also upside down, the motor started again at once when you turned her the right way up again. You could spin her vertically downwards for thousands of feet and then all she needed was a touch on the rudder-bar, a bit of throttle and the stick pushed forward and out she came in a couple of flips. A Tiger Moth had no vices. She never dropped a wing if you lost flying speed coming in to land, and she would suffer innumerable heavy landings from incompetent beginners without turning a hair. There were two cockpits in a Tiger Moth, one for the instructor and one for the pupil, and you could talk to each other while in flight through a rubber mouthpiece. She had no refinements and of course no self-starter, so that the only way to start the engine was to stand in front and swing the propeller by hand. When you did this, you took great care not to lose your balance and fall forward otherwise the prop would chop off your head.

Nairobi 4 December 1939

Dear Mama,

I’m having a lovely time, have never enjoyed myself so much. I’ve been sworn in to the R. A. F. proper and am definitely in it now until the end of the war. My rank – a Leading Aircraftman, with every opportunity of becoming a pilot officer in a few months if I don’t make a B.F. of myself. No boys to do everything for me anymore. Get your own food, wash your own knives and forks, fold up your own clothes, and in short, do everything for yourself. I suppose I’d better not say too much about what we do or when we are going because the letter would probably be torn up by the censor, but we wake at

5.30 a.m., drill before breakfast till 7 a.m., fly and attend lectures till 12.30. 12.30/1.30 lunch – 1.30 to 6.00 p.m. flying and lectures. The flying is grand and our instructors are extremely pleasant and proficient. With any luck I’ll be flying solo by the end of this week …

There was only one runway on the little Nairobi aerodrome and this gave everyone plenty of practice at cross-wind landings and take-offs. And on most mornings, before flying began, we all had to run out on to the airfield and chase the zebras away.

When flying a military aeroplane, you sit on your parachute, which adds another six inches to your height. When I got into the open cockpit of a Tiger Moth for the first time and sat down on my parachute, my entire head stuck up in the open air. The engine was running and I was getting a rush of wind full in the face from the slipstream.

‘You are too tall,’ the instructor whose name was Flying Officer Parkinson said. ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’

‘Yes please,’ I said.

‘Wait till we rev her up for take-off,’ Parkinson said. ‘You’ll have a job to breathe. And keep those goggles down or you’ll be blinded by watering eyes.’

Parkinson was right. On the first flight I was almost asphyxiated by the slipstream and survived only by ducking down into the cockpit for deep breaths every few seconds. After that, I tied a thin cotton scarf around my nose and mouth and this made breathing possible.

I see from my Log Book, which I still have, that I went solo after 7 hours 40 minutes, which was about average. An RAF pilot’s Log Book, by the way, is, or certainly was in those days, quite a formidable affair. It was an almost square (8” × 9”) book, 1” thick and bound between two very hard covers faced with blue canvas. You never lost your Log Book. It contained a record of every flight you had ever made as well as the plane you were flying, the purpose and destination of the trip and the time you had spent in the air.

After I had gone solo, I was allowed to go up alone for much of the time and it was wonderful. How many young men, I kept asking myself, were lucky enough to be allowed to go whizzing and soaring through the sky above a country as beautiful as Kenya? Even the aeroplane and the petrol were free! In the Great Rift Valley the big game and smaller game were as plentiful as cows on a dairy farm, and I flew low in my little Tiger Moth to look at them. Oh, the animals I saw every day from that cockpit! I would fly for long periods at a height of no more than sixty or seventy feet, gazing down at huge herds of buffalo and wildebeest which would stampede in all directions as I whizzed over. From an illustrated book I had bought in Nairobi, I learnt to recognize kudu, Thomson’s gazelle, eland, impala and many other animals. I saw plenty of giraffe and rhino and elephant and lion, and once I spotted a leopard, sleek as silk, lying along the trunk of a large tree. He was watching some impala grazing below him and deciding which one to have for his dinner. I flew over the pink flamingos on Lake Nakuru and I flew all the way round the snow summit of Mount Kenya in my trusty little Tiger Moth. What a fortunate fellow I am, I kept telling myself. Nobody has ever had such a lovely time as this!

 

 

The initial training took eight weeks, and at the end of it we were all fairly competent fliers of light single-engined aircraft. We could loop the loop and fly upside down. We could get ourselves out of a spin. We could do forced landings with the engine cut. We could side-slip and land decently in a strong cross-wind. We could navigate our way solo from Nairobi to Eldoret or Nakuru and back with plenty of cloud about, and we were full of confidence.

As soon as we had passed out of Initial Training School in Nairobi, we were put on a train bound for Kampala, in Uganda. The journey took a day and a night, and the train was so slow that we spent a lot of the time, frisky youngbloods that we were, climbing up on to the roofs of the carriages and running the whole length of the train and back, jumping over the gaps between the carriages.

At Kampala there was an Imperial Airways flying-boat moored on the lake and waiting to take the sixteen of us 2,000 miles north, to Cairo. By now we

were half-trained pilots and wherever we went we were treated as moderately valuable properties. We ourselves were bursting with energy and exuberance and perhaps a touch of self-importance as well because now we were intrepid flying men and devils of the sky.

Nairobi 18 December 1939

Dear Mama,

Well, everything here is also going very smoothly. I did my first solo flight some days ago and now go up alone for longish periods every day. I’ve just learnt to loop the loop and spin and the next thing we’ve got to do is flying upside down, which isn’t quite so funny. But it’s all marvellous fun …

 

 

The great flying-boat flew low for the whole of the long journey, and as we passed over the wild and barren lands where Kenya meets the Sudan we saw literally hundreds of elephant. They seemed to move around in herds of about twenty, always with a mighty bull tusker leading the herd and with the cows and their babies in the rear. Never, I kept reminding myself as I peered down through the small round window of the flying-boat, never will I see anything like this again.

Soon we found the upper reaches of the Nile and followed it down to Wadi Halfa, where we landed to refuel. Wadi Halfa then was one corrugated-iron shed with a lot of 44-gallon drums of petrol lying around, and the river was narrow and very fast. We all marvelled at the skill of the pilot as he put the great lumbering flying-machine down on that rushing strip of water.

In Cairo we landed on a very different Nile, wide and sluggish, and we were shuttled ashore and taken to Heliopolis aerodrome and put on board a monstrous and ancient transport plane whose wings were joined together with bits of wire.

‘Where are they taking us to?’ we asked.

‘To Iraq,’ they answered, ‘and jolly good luck to you all.’ ‘What do you mean by that?’

‘We mean that you are going to Habbaniya in Iraq and Habbaniya is the most godforsaken hell-hole in the entire world,’ they said, smirking. ‘It is where you will stay for six months to complete your advanced flying training, after which you will be ready to join a squadron and face the enemy.’

Unless you had been there and seen it with your own eyes you could not believe that a place like Habbaniya existed. It was a vast assemblage of hangars and Nissen huts and brick bungalows set slap in the middle of a boiling desert on the banks of the muddy Euphrates river miles from anywhere. The nearest place to it was Baghdad, about 100 miles to the north.

Habbaniya 20 February 1940

Dear Mama,

Here is a not very good photo taken of me in the streets of Cairo by one of those men who pop up from behind a public lavatory and snap you and hand you a bit of paper telling you to call tomorrow for the print …

 

 

This amazing and nonsensical RAF outpost was colossal. It was at least a

mile long on each of its four sides, and there were paved streets called Bond Street and Regent Street and Tottenham Court Road. There were hospitals and dental surgeries and canteens and recreation halls and I don’t know how many thousands of men lived there. What they did I never discovered. It was beyond me why anyone should want to build a vast RAF town in such an abominable, unhealthy, desolate place as Habbaniya.

Habbaniya 10 July 1940

Dear Mama,

We’ve been here nearly 5 months now, and as we get nearer and nearer to the time when our course is finished and we go elsewhere we get more and more thrilled. It will be curious to see ordinary men and actual women doing ordinary things in ordinary places once more, to call a taxi or use the telephone; to order what you want to eat or to see a train; to go up a flight of stairs or see a row of houses. All these things and many more I shall derive the very greatest pleasure from doing …

At Habbaniya we flew from dawn until 11 a.m. After that, as the temperature in the shade moved up towards 115ºF, everyone had to stay indoors until it cooled down again. We were flying more powerful planes now, Hawker Harts with Rolls-Royce Merlin engines, and everything became suddenly much more serious. The Harts had machine-guns on their wings and we would practise shooting down the enemy by firing at a canvas drogue towed behind another plane.

My Log Book tells me that we were at Habbaniya from 20 February 1940 to 20 August 1940, for exactly six months, and apart from the flying which was always exhilarating, it was a pretty tedious period of my young life.

There were minor excitements now and then to relieve the boredom such as the flooding of the Euphrates when we had to evacuate the entire camp to a windswept plateau for ten days. People got stung by scorpions and went into hospital for a while to recover. The Iraqi tribesmen sometimes took pot shots at us from the surrounding hills. Men occasionally got heatstroke and had to be packed in ice. Everyone suffered from prickly heat and itched all over for much of the time.

But eventually we got our wings and were judged ready to move on and confront the real enemy. About one half of the sixteen of us were given commissions and promoted to the rank of Pilot Officer. The other half were made Sergeant Pilots, though how this rather arbitrary class-conscious division was made I never knew. We were also divided up into fighter pilots

or bomber pilots, fliers either of single-engined planes or twins. I became a Pilot Officer and a fighter pilot. Then all sixteen of us said goodbye to one another and were whisked off in many different directions.

I found myself at a large RAF station on the Suez Canal called Ismailia, where they told me that I had been posted to 80 Squadron who were flying Gladiators against the Italians in the Western Desert of Libya. The Gloster Gladiator was an out-of-date fighter biplane with a radial engine. Back in England at that time, all the fighter boys were flying Hurricanes and Spitfires, but they were not sending any of those little beauties out to us in the Middle East quite yet.

 

 

The Gladiator was armed with two fixed machine-guns, and these actually fired bullets through the revolving propeller. To me, this was about the greatest piece of magic I had ever seen in my life. I simply could not understand how two machine-guns firing thousands of bullets a minute could be synchronized to fire their bullets through a propeller revolving at thousands of revs a minute without hitting the propeller blades. I was told it had something to do with a little oil pipe and that the propeller shaft communicated with the machine-guns by sending pulses along the pipe, but more than that I cannot tell you.

At Ismailia, a rather supercilious Flight-Lieutenant pointed to a parked Gladiator on the tarmac and said to me, ‘That one’s yours. You’ll be flying it out to your squadron tomorrow.’

‘Who will teach me how to fly it?’ I asked, trembling.

‘Don’t be an ass,’ he said. ‘How can anyone teach you when there’s only one cockpit? Just get in and do a few circuits and bumps and you’ll soon get the hang of it. You had better get all the practice you can because the next thing you know you’ll be dicing in the air with some clever little Italian who will be trying to shoot you down.’

I remember thinking at the time that this was surely not the right way of doing things. They had spent eight months and a great deal of money training me to fly and suddenly that was the end of it all. Nobody in Ismailia was going to teach me anything about air-to-air combat, and they were certainly not going to take time off to instruct me when I joined a busy operational squadron. There is no question that we were flung in at the deep end, totally unprepared for actual fighting in the air, and this, in my opinion, accounted for the very great losses of young pilots that we suffered out there. I myself survived only by the skin of my teeth.

 

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