Memoir of Fred Whittaker of 30 Sqdn
Fred Whittaker took part in 30 Sqdn’s battle with the Japanese in Ceylon in April ’42. He wrote a short memoir of his wartime activities. The following is a transcription of notes Fred Whittaker made of his RAF career, clearly to give a talk (possibly to the Businessmen`s Club in Irvine, of which he was a member). They have been, to a very slight degree, edited and tidied up, because the originals were in some cases rough drafts, and the same material which appeared in different forms has here been amalgamated.
Editorial comments are in italics. From the point marked with a line of asterisks the memoirs are unedited, apart from the correction of obvious slips of the pen, changes to punctuation and the insertion of a paragraph from the end of the notes, clearly marked “Intro”, into its proper place.
PER ARDUA AD ASTRA
Per ardua ad astra – and all that!
`Through difficulties to the skies`; or `through adversity to the skies`; or irreverently “per aqua asbestos – blow you Jack, I`m fireproof.” Or, “through perversity to the skies ” – in my case.
Before going into details, a quick résumé of my progress and travels through training and operations.
Sept. 1940 I.T.W. (Initial Training Wing)
Marching round Aberystwyth at 120 paces per minute like Charlie Chaplin films reciting `Albert and the Flight Sergeant` for end of course concert.
Subjects: navigation, meteorology, engines, theory of flight, medical aspects, signalling (Morse buzz and lamp) – tutor, blasphemous air gunner (retired).
Inscription on lavatory wall – “Bill Sloan was here” (in joke for audience?)
Dec. 1940 E.F.T.S. (Elementary Flying Training School)
Learning to fly Tiger Moths – open cockpit.
Stated preference for fighter, because of “leg shortage”.
53 hours completed (24 solo).
March 1941 SFTS (Service Flying Training School)
Bomber training on twin engined `Oxfords`.
Received “Wings” – no ceremony – pay 13/6 (inc. danger money).
128 hours (56 solo).
Expected posting to bombers
June 1941 O.T.U. (Operational Training Unit)
Fighter training – 2 Hurricanes suffered (more of that later).
183 hours (122 solo). Fully operational! Choice – night fighter in England or day fighter in Egypt. State preference for latter – posted to night fighter squadron operating over Cairo and the Delta.
2½ years ops service – taken off ops for rest. Joined communication squadron in Delhi but seconded immediately to Special Force (Wingate) to act as a super air taxi cab in and out of Burma. Rest! (Supposed to be a respite, but obviously wasn`t.) Nearer front line than before.
Returned to England – joined Training Command. Asked for experience on multi-engined and passed out as Instructor on twin-engined Oxfords (view to future in civil aviation). Went to Peterborough as Instructor – C.O. checked log book, noted time spent on Hurricanes – just the man for fighter training for Free French.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
This is not going to be a tale of “derring do” but of one man`s efforts to survive the war in spite of friends and foes and suicidal tendencies. Not that I would have altred it very much, although there were times when I wondered how the hell I got into and out of certain predicaments. The R.A.F. had many colourful and descriptive phrases, one of which was to describe a feeling of nervous tension as “chewing holes in one`s parachute”. We sat on our parachutes. It was also known as “a ring twitch”. I experienced it on many occasions. But on the whole I am grateful that I got an opportunity to do things and see places I never dreamt would be possible.
The remainder of my talk will cover the various attempts on my life – not from enemy action (they were the least of my worries) – but by the R.A.F. and others such as the R.N., and suicidal and self inflicted.
First attempt was made in E.F.S. days. After 10 hours tuition I had “gone solo” and gradually progressed to aerobatics – stall turns, loops, slow rolls, rolls off the top. Told to fly a few miles away and practise. Flew out on a steady course until I noticed a reservoir below me – made a mental note of my direction so that by following the reciprocal course from the reservoir I should finish back at home. That was the theory. In practice it turned out rather different.
Very exhilarating hour – scary when things went wrong – top of the world when they went right. After an hour, decided to return. Looked for the reservoir to check my bearings – gone! Can only conclude that some well-wisher must have drained it whilst I was disporting myself. The outcome was a forced landing in a field near a village and a phone call from the local vicarage to the flying field. I was not popular when my instructor had to come out and fly me back. On the way back I spotted my reservoir – they had filled it again!
The next two attempts occurred at the A.F.T.S. – twin engined airspeed Oxford, after short conversion course. Took off with a light heart on my first solo and became aware of a fierce juddering as if the plane was trying to shake itself to pieces. After a muttered prayer to the Almighty I hung on to the stick like grim death and eased her round the circuit at about 200 ft. and managed to land. The sergeant fitter appeared and, on receiving my complaint about the aircraft being ready to fall apart, calmly pointed to the turret half way down the fuselage – which had been left in the reverse position so that the slip stream was entering the aircraft through the open segment in the turret and creating havoc around the fuselage. The sergeant calmly told me it ws my duty to check such things before taking off. I suppose he was right.
The next attempt at the same station could not be attributed to my lack of inspection, and resulted in the instrument fitter being put on a “fizzer”.
Amongst the instruments in the cockpit are two which are connected to the pito head. The pito head is the pair of tubes which sticks out in front of the wing and acts in two capacities. One part is a hollow tube up which the wind blows and registers your airspeed on the dial in the cockpit, and the other is a blanked off tube which transmits the barometric pressure to another dial – the altimeter. Two very important instruments – airspeed to ensure that you have the necessary speed to carry out flying safely without getting into a “stalled” position, and altitude to let you know just how far off the ground you are. In this instance the fitter had managed to cross the two tubes to my instruments. The result was that when I took off I glanced down at my airspeed to see if I had sufficient speed to become airborne. To my horror I was doing 5 m.p.h. Even more disconcerting, my altimeter already was fluctuating wildly around 1000 ft. and I hadn`t yet left the ground.
It is on these occasions that you fly “by the seat of your pants” and it was a vry worried, very relieved L.A.C. that managed to complete the circuit arriving safely on mother earth on that occasion.
On completion of AFTS I qualified for my “wings”. In a typical British manner all ceremony was dispensed with. We merely reported to the clothing store and drew our wings and sergeant stripes over the counter and a new uniform – and that was it! We then went home on leave and the girl friend got busy with the needle and thread. It was a very similar feeling to passing the driving test – wings on, L plates off – know it all – then you start really learning.
As I said in opening summary I could now expect a posting to a bomber O.T.U. as a natural progression from a twin-engined training school. Not a bit of it. When I arrived at an airfield just outside Carlisle there wasn`t a bomber in sight – only Hurricanes and a couple of Miles Masters. I reported to my Flight Commander (ex- Battle of Britain pilot) and mentioned the fact that I had just come off Oxfords, but he seemed unimpressed and told me to take a Hurricane up and do a few circuits and landings (“bumps”). Well, half an hour and two damaged Hurricanes later, he took me to one side and in choice language told me to pull my finger out.
I reckoned these flights to be the next two attempts on my life. I must point out at this stage that there is a difference in handling characteristics between a heavy lumbering twin-engined aircraft and a mettlesome single engined fighter – rather like driving a bus compared to a fast motorcycle. We had been taught on the Oxford to recognise the point of stall when landing and then haul back the stick against your chest and let the aircraft wallow to the ground. On the Hurricane, not having any idea of the “feel” of the aircraft, I anticipated the stall too early and landed the aircraft 4 ft. off the ground. At that height the stall was most marked and the starboard wing whipped down and smote the ground a terrific slap followed by the rest of the aircraft – which finished up with its wingtip bent upward at a delicate 30º angle.
The Flight Commander may have had some doubts at this stage, but following the true tradition, took it that the best thing to do was to send me up immediately in another Hurricane before I lost my nerve! That was his second mistake.
My next attempted landing finished up quite differently. I made a cautious approach and kept a bit of engine on until I bumped on to the runway. I was down safely – but then the damn thing wouldn`t stop. I frantically applied the brakes and ever so gently ran off the end of the runway, whereupon my wheels stuck in the soft earth and my propeller buried itself into the ground. I remember making a mental note of how peculiar the prop looked with its blades bent outwards like petals on a rose.
The only other experiences of note that happened at this time were of totally differing natures, from the humorous through to the tragic, and nothing to do with further attempts on my life.
The first incident happened when two Sergeant Pilots were sent up in a Miles Master to practse instrument flying. The idea was that one pilot would act as look-out man whilst the other buried his head in the cockpit and carried out instructions received over the intercom as to what course and height to fly at. The intercom was quite a primitive affair consisting of a speaking tube attached to the helmet like a doctor`s stethoscope.
I must say a few words about parachutes and safety harnesses at this point. The parachute and harness was so constructed that it formed your seat once in the cockpit – on the ground you waddled about like a pregnant duck. Once seated in the cockpit you then donned the safety harness. This consists of 4 web straps – one over each shoulder and one across each thigh, meeting in a point somewhere around the solar plexus and held together by a substantial pin. To adjust the tension you merely pull the two adjusting tabs located in a handy position on each side of the seat.
To get back to the story. Our two friends were flying peacefully over the Lake District when they ran into bumpy conditions, causing the chap in the rear seat to bump his head on the cockpit roof – whereupon he decided to tighten his shoulder harness. And that`s when everything started to go wrong. Instead of simply pulling on the adjusting tabs, he took out the quick pin from his harness – presumably to tighten it up a notch – and at that precise moment they hit another bump. The “driver” then turned in his seat to comment on this last bump and was surprised that the rear seat was vacant, apart from a communication tube sticking bolt upright like the Indian rope trick. It was an ashen faced Sergeant Pilot that arrived back at the airfield to inform an incredulous Flight Commander that he had “lost” his passenger. There was a happy ending to this story when the “passenger” arrived back at camp the following day. He related how, after releasing his safety pin, he received a terrific bump on the head – and then silence. He then noticed that it felt draughty, and realising his predicament, pulled his ripcord and finished up being dragged up a hillside by his parachute. He then made his way to an isolated farmhouse – only to be greeted by the farmer brandishing a shot-gun! Peace was soon restored and he was fed and cosseted by the farmer`s wife, arriving back at the airfield with arms full of rhubarb!
There were no further attempts on my life at this time, but that doesn`t mean that the remainder of the course passed without incident. One Sergeant Pilot managed to fall out of his aircraft whilst instrument flying over the Lake District. A Canadian P/O went to practise air/ground machine gunning on a target floating out to sea on a raft, but shot up the shore based control hut instead – Corporal I/C receiving one through the buttocks. And another Sergeant Pilot practising air/air gunner got out of control and spun to the ground from 2000 ft.- not very funny as I was watching him all the way down.
It was after this final course in our training that I elected to go overseas to join a squadron in the Middle East. What I didn`t much care for was the manner of our going. We were put on board the Ark Royal and taken down to the Mediterranean. On the way we were given a few tips by a friendly Fleet Air Arm pilot on the correct manner to take off from an aircraft carrier and then wished “the best of luck”. We needed it. Somehow we managed to take off – at least, 11 of us did; no. 12 adopted the wrong take-off technique and careered over the port side to a watery grave. The rest of us landed more or less safely at Malta – thence by flying boat to Egypt. I was then posted to a fighter squadron – No. 30 Squadron – which turned out to be a night fighter squadron. I could have been night fighting back in England and saved myself the trouble and a 1000 mile trip.
In due course we moved up the desert along the north coast of Africa where the next attempt on my life was to be made – this time by the Royal Navy.
General Wavell had pushed the Germans back, cutting off quite a large number of them at Tobruk – the action gave rise to the immortal news headlines “British Push Bottles Up Germans”. One of our duties was to act as fighter cover for the naval ships in the Mediterranean, who were frequently attacked by the Italians from south Italy. This particular morning my section was to be first off at the crack of dawn, and our first job was to locate the convoy, fix its position, report back to bse and then patrol over the convoy until our relief section arrived. The first thing to go wrong was that my No. 2`s engine refused to start, so I finally took off on my own. After a 30 minute search I located the convoy about 50 miles out at sea and approached it cautiously – the navy boys are very touchy about aircraft. Having let my undercarriage down and fired off my Very lights (colours of the day), according to “the book”, I was most surprised to see ahead of me in the sky several black puffs of smoke suddenly appeared. I didn`t wait for a second salvo, and muttering curses on the navy, put my wheels up and my nose down and flew back from whence I had come – at sea level. It turned out that they had been told to expect two aircraft, and when they saw only one appeared, they decided to take no chances.
But the navy were not finished with me yet. Whilst still “up the desert” I was seconded to the Fleet Air Arm who were manning an airfield some 100 miles further back towards Alexandria. They should have been supplying air cover to their convoys, but as not one of their aircraft was serviceable they had to swallow their pride and ask the R.A.F. for assistance. It was a most enjoyable stay in the Petty Officers` mess – I hadn`t eaten so well since I left home. It was therefore as a means of repaying their hospitality that I agreed to test fly one of their aircraft, recently repaired – and as there was no F.A.A. pilot available at the time.
I suppose the fault initially lay with the navy fitters who were perhaps more used to repairing battleships that Hurricanes – although I must accept the final responsibility and also the truth of the saying “familiarity breeds contempt”. By this time I was familiar with the Hurricane, so instead of testing the engine on the ground at “full revs” – which would have meant two unfortunate ground crew hanging on to the tail, backs to the engine, whilst I “sandblasted” their backsides – I merely followed the usual practice of opening the throttle half way and testing each of the twin magneto switches in turn. There was a slight drop in revs on each switch, but experience told me that this was quite acceptable. So with “careless rapture” I waved the chocks away and started off down the runway, gradually opening the throttle to its fullest extent.
I had just left the ground when there was a terrific bang from my engine, which lost its power and then caught again with another surge of power, only to emit another explosion. Now the drill books say that in the event of an engine failure on take-off you just keep going straight ahead, hand over to “J.C.” and keep your bowels open! However, I realised that in between bangs I was gaining a little altitude, so at about 500ft. I gingerly made a flat turn round the airfield and, still banging away every few seconds, I brought the aircraft safely back to earth. The `matelots` were highly amused by this performance, saying that it sounded like someone had tied a bunch of Chinese crackers to my tail. They got me drunk that evening so we finally parted best of pals.
The next attempt was even more determined and a joint attempt by the R.A.F. and R. Navy.
It was Feb. `42 and things were hotting up around Singapore, so the squadron was pulled off the western desert and eventually saw us embarking at Port Sudan – you will find it half way down the Red Sea, on the right – aboard the aircraft carrier H.M.S. Indomitable (Captain, Sir Thomas Troubridge). In the meantime Singapore was surrendered to the Japs, so we were re-routed to Ceylon. We were to fly off the carrier `X` miles from Ceylon and land at an airfield near Colombo. At least in theory, it was all straightforward. Apart from myself and the Canadians who had done the previous “carrier take-off” in the Med, none of the other pilots had had this experience, so that we spent a few days airing our superior knowledge and handing out advice to the “old sweats”.
Since our aircraft were of the land based version, they did not have folding wings like the naval Sea-Hurricane model, so that the bits and pieces had to be raised on to the deck during the night and assembled in readiness for our take-off at first light. During the pre-flight briefing we had been assured that the carrier would turn into the wind for take-off and hold its course for five minutes in case of any slip-ups. In actual fact, the moment the last aircraft was airborne the carrier swung out of wind on to another course – which was unfortunate for me, to say the least.
As soon as I had left the carrier, I became aware of drops of liquid blowing back under the instrument panel and spattering against my face and legs. At first I thought that it must be some water that had collected in the engine during storage, but when I wiped my face it felt rather “syrupy” on my fingers. With a sick feeling in my stomach I then tasted the liquid and confirmed my worst fears, that my engine coolant was leaking, and at a fair rate. The question was, how long before the engine seized up and how far were we from land. The first was anybody`s guess – maybe five or ten minutes, I hadn`t a clue. The second, only the navy knew, and they kept their position a dark secret and preferred to send one of their own pilots with us to show the way. In view of these imponderables, I decided to take a chance and return to the carrier, only to find that it had turned “out of the wind”. However, I carried out the agreed procedure and flew low over the carrier with my wheels down. I could see them waving cheerily at me. It took three runs over the carrier before I got my message over, then all hell was let loose down below.
Our second flight was being made ready and positioned on deck and had to me manhandled right up forward, the crash barriers were raised half way along the deck and the carrier swung once more into the wind. Well, as you can see, I made it – as the Captain`s testimonial said, “without the use of arrester gear and” (what was more important from the Captain`s point of view) “without damage to H.M. ship or my aircraft”. Whilst the Fleet Air Arm made quite a fuss and presented me with an “illuminated scroll” making me “an honorary member of the F.A.A. with a special rating as Deck Landing Instructor”, the only comment I got from the R.A.F. Engineering Officer in charge of assembling the aircraft was a begrudging “You might have made it, you know”. I`m afraid I was too taken aback by the fellow`s audacity to concoct a suitable answer but merely replied “And I might not!” Anyway, I left with the afternoon flight and re-joined my squadron ¾ hours later.
After a couple of skirmishes with the Japs in Ceylon, the squadron moved up to India, West Bengal, and continued operating over the Malay peninsula, supporting our forces on the ground.
By this time (I was now a commissioned officer) the powers that be decided that it was time that I had a rest from operations. The normal period was either 100 hrs. ops or 12 months – I had done 2½ years, so I didn`t object. For my “rest” (in inverted commas) I was transferred to a communication squadron stationed at Delhi, and this is where I became the object of some very sharp practice. The station at Delhi was the “cushiest number” I had come up with during the whole of my overseas stay – but I was not to find that out for another six months. They must have been waiting for a “new recruit”, as it were. For I was instructed to proceed directly to Gwalior, in Central India, and report to the Special Force which was in training and re-equipping there. The “Special Force” was Wingate`s outfit (although he had just been killed in an air accident) and I soon found myself back in the thick of it, flying a high-winged monoplane at 100 m.p.h., without gun or parachute, acting as a taxi driver for the “Army brass”. It was a boring job for me, but the Army boys (or “Brown jobs” as we called them) seemed to like flying hither and thither – Brigadier (as he then was) Ferguson was a regular passenger. In fact he did most of the flying once we were airborne.
But it was a Captain Bryce who had the misfortune to share with me the next attempt on my life. My aircraft – a Fairchild Argus – was a docile little plane and ran quite economically on 70 octane fuel (as against the 100 octane for the Hurricane) and indeed was identical to the fuel used by the motor transport. My petrol supply consisted of a pile of 2 gallon cans, which were frequently holed and were apt to contain a fair amount of water. The fuel was supposed to be filtered through a chamois leather before entering the tank, but I suspect that someone, at some time, had been adopting a more direct method of approach.
So it was that I took off one bright morning with Captain Bryce on board, looking forward like a schoolboy on vacation to a few days spent in a hotel in Calcutta. Alas, it was not to be. At 500 ft. up my engine gave a strangled cough and choked to death. There is only one thing to do in such a case – put your nose down to maintain flying speed and go straight ahead, say a silent prayer and keep your bowels. Whatever you do, you must not let the plane stall (i.e. lose flying speed). Fortunately, this type of plane would stall at about 45 m.p.h. (compared to the Hurricane`s 80 m.p.h.). Half way down I remember that the propeller came to a full stop and there was just the whistling of the wind in my ears. It was rather eerie.
The ground that I was fast approaching was a patchwork of paddy fields, but as is common in such areas, there are hillocks dotted about all over the place, where the natives live, leaving the paddy field to get flooded during the rainy season. I found myself heading straight for one of these hillocks. It was a moment for quick decisions – should I crash into the hillock or try to get round it and chance what might be waiting to greet me on the other side. The plane was still answering the controls was about 20 ft. off the ground when I put it into a vertical bank, my wing-tip skimming the ground. Round the hillock we went and I had just got her back on the straight and level when she stalled safely into a muddy paddy field. True to the R.A.F. tradition I turned to my passenger and said, “Sorry about that, old chap” – in what I hoped would sound a calm and unemotional tone. I needn`t have bothered – the poor chap was so relieved to be in one piece, his gratitude was embarrassing. In view of that, there was no argument when I suggested that he should walk back to the airfield and drum up some assistance, while I stayed by my aircraft. The last I saw of Capt. Bryce was ghim slopping through the paddy field with joyful step.
And that brings to a close my account of one man`s fight for survival, in spite of his friends. True, there were the times when first the `Jerries` then the `Japs` “had a go” – but at least they were the accepted risks of the business and fully justified. But that opens up a different “can of worms” entirely.
Originally Posted on the RAFCommands Forum – http://www.rafcommands.com/forum/showthread.php?11196-Memoir-of-Fred-Whittaker-of-30-Sqdn