World War Two | Royal Air Force 1949-1951 | VE Day
1938 was another depressed year for cotton, stemming largely from the threat posed in Europe by the demands of Hitler and his Nazi Party. After the Munich crisis in September, the volume of business was greatly reduced. By February 1939, cotton exports here were far less than in 1850. Ten per cent of Blackburn's population had migrated to the more prosperous South of England.
When the Second World War started in September 1939, there was renewed activity in the cotton mills, By January, 1940, two shifts were being worked, as the export of cotton goods was encouraged to help pay for spending on war materials. With the changed situation after the fall of France, the blockade and the Battle of the Atlantic, and the need to release workers for war production, the policy was changed to one of "Concentration" whereby many mills were closed down by the Government, so that the number of active mills in Blackburn was reduced from 65 to around 20, the Labour force shrinking proportionately.
The surviving mills found themselves engaged on the production of such unfamiliar fabrics as parachute cloth, camouflage material, and khaki drill. The empty mills were used for storage of food supplies or strategic material as Government Storage Depots or Buffer Depots. During the "Blitz" two mills were used to re-house firms whose premises had been bombed. With the coming of the "Utility" scheme, contracts were given to some firms for production of a restricted range of cloths to a standard quality. At the end of the War, the labour force was dispersed, in the forces or engaged on munitions production.
Many former cotton workers were not willing to return. One manufacturer who wrote to 180 of his old workers found that only 70 were prepared to come back. The numbers were made up by workers from European countries who had been uprooted by the war. There is still a sizable Polish population in Blackburn, while others came from the Ukraine.
This is the final part of Vince Gibson’s biography. It tells of his two years National Service, which every young lad had to do at the age of 18. Vince chose the RAF for his service. The narrative starts with his arrival as a raw recruit at RAF Padgate near Warrington and finishes with his demob as a qualified Flight Mechanic Airframes (FMA) at RAF Syerston, near Newark, Nottinghamshire. Like most young men doing National Service at that time, Vince not only learns a lot about aircraft but also a lot about life.
Using the free railway pass provided by the Minister of Labour I presented myself at RAF Padgate, near Warrington on Monday August 8th. The entrance is guarded by uniformed airmen with rifles, supported by a Spitfire on display. New arrivals are invited to take a seat in reception, to be welcomed into the Royal Air Force by a wing commander. The officer is soon replaced by a corporal who has an inflated opinion of his importance to the RAF. He immediately orders us outside to form up in threes and march to the equipment stores, and collect a pint pot and cutlery. We are immediately responsible for their safe keeping and replacement at our own cost. We are next marched to the medical centre, told to take our jackets off, and roll up our sleeves for inoculations in both arms. Next move is to the canteen for an unappetizing dinner (not lunch).
Dinner is followed by a photo session, and the issue of our identity card, known as a 1250. This identity card incorporates your service number, which we are told we will remember for the rest of our lives. The validity of this information has yet to be tested.
Off now to another medical centre for a medical with a well known routine. As you are recovering from the medical you go for an interview before a selection officer to choose your occupation choice. The outcome of this interview will tell you what you are going to get. We are told we will complete an aptitude test at the end of our basic training, and this will decide our future.
It is already clear that the drill corporal’s job satisfaction is achieved by his actions. E.G. our corporal has insisted all recruits must march very close together, and swing their arms. The result is many pint pots have been smashed. He then helps the recruits by recommending they go to the NAAFI after the evening meal and buy new pint pots.
The first day ended with most trainees spending the evening in the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) eating and drinking. Our accommodation is provided in wood huts accommodating thirty airmen and a corporal in a private room. We have started the countdown to demob which is only 729 days away.
On our second day we are awakened at 06.30 by reveille for a wash or shower in cold water. After breakfast we had a hut meeting with our corporal to explain the week’s programme. The meeting was followed by a tour of the camp to familiarize ourselves with all the features. The big event of this morning is kitting out i.e. being issued with our uniforms. The event was organised to be a hassle. We all filed into one end of the store and progressed along a counter to collect a kit bag, one D ring and pad lock. Into the kit bag we pack underpants, vests, shirts, loose collars, socks, two pairs of boots, braces, ties, one dress suit, one battle dress and trousers, two brass badges, one beret, one forage cap, one button stick, webbing belt, webbing straps side pack, water bottle, back pack, shoe brushes, gaiters and finally one housewife. The housewife did not match-up to most airmen’s imagination. The sizes of clothes are guesstimates made by the staff behind the counter, and not very good guesses at that.
Once we have signed for our clothes, we take them to a large hanger and spread them out on the floor to check that we have got everything. At this stage everybody has to remove all their civilian clothes, which are packed into a brown paper sack to be sent home. The next stage is to number every individual item of clothing including those we are wearing.
The above exercise has taken the whole morning. After dinner we returned to our billet to be instructed how to make our beds, and layout our kit for inspection by the officer of the day. Each billet has a large diagram next to the entrance illustrating precisely how kit should be presented. When this exercise was completed to the corporal’s satisfaction we moved on to “bull night” duties and standards. After tea we had to go to the NAAFI to purchase Brasso or Duraglit, black boot polish and dusters for an evening session polishing brasses and burnishing boots. No relaxation this evening and no point in going for supper as the food is lousy.
The remainder of the week was repetitious marching, cleaning and polishing, attending lectures and generally keeping out of trouble. On the Friday afternoon we had an interview with a psychologist, followed by a collective meeting where they informed us that we would be travelling by train on Monday to Bridgnorth.
Inside a billet at Bridgnorth circa 1949
Monday 15th August 1949. This morning we marched out of RAF Padgate and marched down to Padgate railway station to catch a charter train to Bridgnorth. We are in dress uniform complete with full webbing and kit bag. It was not long before we arrived at Bridgnorth railway station and marched to RAF Bridgnorth singing as we marched.
This station is known as No 7 Recruits Training Centre. We are due to remain here for eight weeks for initial ground training. It is intended that when you leave you will be physically fit and ready to train for occupational trade training. The daily routine is usually done at the double. Every day we do foot drill on the parade ground, we do cross country running complete with full webbing harness, and arms training with .22 and .303 rifles and automatic Sten guns. Gym training is also a daily routine along with the inevitable assault course. Worked in with the physical work are lectures. The most difficult ones to survive were lectures on aircraft recognition held in the last session of the day, when everyone was tired and the room was in darkness. Inevitably a good number of airmen fell asleep. The instructors would suddenly switch on the lights and anyone who was asleep would be put on jankers. These could include spud bashing, painting coal, scrubbing floors or appearing on parade at 06.30 for a number of mornings in full uniform.
Every week we had a “Bull night” which would be inspected by the officer of the day. This always included a kit inspection to exacting standards.
When we completed five weeks service in the RAF, we are entitled to a 48 hour pass and a free rail warrant. This was the opportunity to go home and show our parents how we look in uniform. It was also an opportunity to renew acquaintances which is getting increasingly difficult as they may also be doing national service. The weekend soon passed, but I took the opportunity to take a supply of food back to the camp with me.
We also became entitled to a 36 hour pass, so I took the opportunity to spend a night at the Salvation Army hostel in Birmingham. The charge was sixpence, including breakfast because I was in uniform. When we have completed our training we are considered to be competent airmen ready to transfer to a technical training school. In my case I will transfer to RAF St Athan for training as an Air Frame Mechanic.
One final memory of Bridgnorth will always remain with me. The month was August which is the height of the wasp season. For supper each day the cooks provided jam sandwiches displayed on trays outside in the open. Needless to say it was not possible to get near sandwiches for wasps. Jam sandwiches with wasps are a delicacy not available in civvy street.
On the 19th October after one week’s home leave I travelled by train to RAF St Athan for training as a Flight Mechanic Airframes. (FMA) I had no idea what I was heading for, but they told me I had done well in the appropriate aptitude tests.
The official address of our dez rez was Hut No 14, No 2 Squadron, No 1 Training Wing, RAF St Athan. The reality turned out to be a block of 56 wood huts in very poor condition. Most of them have leaking roofs and sanitary facilities in very poor condition. The huts have inadequate heating and are directly exposed to the weather approaching over the Bristol Channel. Food is not worth a mention. The training workshops are substantial buildings, well equipped with good tutors who are trainee orientated. I’m in a new world unsure how I’m going to fare. One unexpected piece of good news means I can go home and collect my bike. The camp has a fully equipped cycling club and a good group of members.
The course started with an introductory lecture and a guided tour of the facilities. The course will consist of theoretical and practical instruction followed by practical and written tests. We have to pass the tests before we can progress to the next module. We will use imperial and metric measurements and tools. We have test rigs for the hydraulic and pneumatic systems which at this stage look very formidable. We will work on a good range of aeroplanes that have been selected for training purposes. The range includes Spitfires, Hurricanes, Avro Ansons, Airspeed Oxfords, Tiger moths, Beau Fighters, a Mosquito and a Lancaster. In addition there is a wide range of aeroplanes that have been withdrawn from active service, and appear to be waiting to be scrapped.
The first two weeks training consisted of filing a piece of steel to a perfect rectangle, this was followed by another two weeks making an adjustable spanner. We gradually moved on to riveting, sheet metal repairs, splicing and swaging cables, dismantling and assembling airframes, practical servicing procedures, responding to contingencies, Irish linen repairs and clerical systems. We had short periods working in a tyre bay and a paint spraying department. An unexpected session was working on Sunderland flying boats at Pembroke Dock for two weeks. My final practical test was on a Lancaster bomber using a test rig on the hydraulic system. The only module that gave me some problems was the week spent on cable splicing. My overall result on the course was 56% which I feel was a good result considering my previous experience was zero. My pay has now moved up to 35/- per week. (£1.35)
Having my bike with me for the first time since early August has transformed my leisure time. For the first time in my working life I am free for a two day weekend. We have a well equipped cycling hut and a good group of racing cyclists. We can go out training and touring throughout Glamorganshire. The coastal area is particularly interesting, and the Welsh Valleys are unique. The Vale of Neath is devastated because of the fumes created by the steel industry. Finding cafes open on a Sunday was difficult because of the Welsh religious situation. We solved the problem with the co-operation of the police as they willingly gave us insider directions to cafes. One of our favourite haunts was a merchant seaman’s club in Port Talbot that provided us with good food, warmth as it was the winter season, and good stories of their wartime experience. On Saturdays I went into Barry or Cardiff including Ninian Park for football. One unusual event was a floodlit football match in Barry. The lights were only about ten-foot high so the ball disappeared from view above that height. On a number of occasions we saw the Brabazon airliner which was built at Filton near Bristol and was on air test at the time. The aeroplane engine technology was behind the times and was eventually scrapped.
On the 15th of March 1950, three of us will be posted to RAF Syerston as fully qualified Flight Mechanic Airframes.
Tudor air disaster
Sunday March 12th was a typical late winter day, fine but cold. A group of us had finished our usual lousy Sunday lunch, and decided to go down to the beach. On our way back to St. Athan a Tudor air liner lost height and crashed a short distance ahead of us. Very soon afterwards a Dakota flew over the wreckage with a second load of supprters.
We dashed to the site of the crash, which was already surrounded by rescue vehicles and ambulances. All the passengers and crew were killed in the main cabin other than three passangers who fled out of the severed tail unit (their seats faced aftwards). The sight was a sceneof chaos, though one fact remains clear in my mind, the rectangular shaped clock in the main cabin was stopped at 16. 10.
We remained at the crash site over night, and finally left the site at 11.30 am on Monday to return to camp. We had not eaten properly since Sunday lunch yet they gave us diced liver in gravy for Monday lunch. Needless to say very few of us had an appetite.
After lunch we returned to our normal training routine.
15th March 1950. Today is the start of a new adventure for three fully qualified tradesmen who left RAF St Athan this morning and travelled by train to RAF Syerston. We had been issued with travel warrants which planned a cross country route for us which included a number of train changes. I discussed our route with the other two airmen and suggested that we would have a much more interesting journey travelling via London to Newark on Trent. The attraction for me was the rail journey through the Severn Tunnel to Paddington station which would be a new experience for me, then travel via Kings Cross station up the east coast main line. The other two lads had not been to London previously, so I suggested we left our gear at the left luggage office at Kings Cross station, and I would take them on a tour around the city. We travelled with full kit including all webbing and kit bag. We had a good day in London and caught an early evening train to Newark on Trent, arriving just in time to catch the last bus to RAF Syerston. We arrived at the camp after 23.30 and the guardroom staff were not impressed. They provided us with temporary accommodation till the following morning. What we did not know was that the Station Warrant Officer (SWO) was also on the bus. The SWO is the key administrative figure and disciplinarian on RAF units. It is often said he is a person to be feared.
Day two followed the standard procedure when taking up a new posting. We reported to the SWO who enquired as to why we had arrived so late the night before. He also reminded us that we represented the RAF when on public transport in uniform. Cannot think why he brought up this subject, other than he may have considered us to be noisy. The SWO allocated us accommodation, and required us to visit every Flight Sergeant (Chiefy) with a departmental responsibility on the base to register our presence. The task took all day, and the reverse procedure will be required before we can leave the base.
On day three I was required to report to the engineering officer in charge of the Repair and Inspection Department for interview and an explanation of my duties. RAF Syerston was a bomber station during the war, and has now been converted to a Flying Training School. In addition to the RAF personnel we provide pilot training for Royal Navy personnel who are usually midshipman rank. The station has previously used Tiger Moth biplanes as the initial trainer, but these are being decommissioned.
We now use the Percival Prentice purpose built training plane with a side by side seat configuration. The other plane we use is the American Harvard, which is a 1938 design with a tandem seat configuration. We do have a single Seafire which is the naval version of the Spitfire with modifications to make it suitable for use on aircraft carriers. Our version is an Mk 22 with folding wings and a deck arrester hook. This is reserved for the personal use of the senior naval officer, which in 1950 was a Commander i.e. three rings.
Following my interview with the engineering officer I was introduced to my Flight Sergeant (Chiefy) who would be my boss on a daily basis. He arranged the issue of overalls, and a full set of tools. He then gave me a tour of the repair and inspection section and introduced me to everyone in authority. My training record from RAF St Athan had preceded me and Chiefy informed me that he had been an instructor at St Athan for a number of years. My first job as a qualified mechanic was to change the master slave cylinder on our only Seafire. Working within the Repair and Inspection section of RAF Syerston gave my work purpose with a recognisable outcome. My previous service was related to discipline and useless activities including painting coal white, polishing brasses, cleaning webbing, polishing floors and keeping drill corporals happy.
During the early afternoon I was issued with a note to collect a parachute and report to our flight test unit. I was scheduled to go on a short test flight in a Harvard to assess my suitability for joining the test flight rota within the R. and I. section. I was told the pilot was carrying out a normal test procedure for a 6000 hour scheduled air test. I was issued with a silk flying suit, a leather helmet and goggles. I would be in the front cockpit and told to simply “enjoy the flight“. Because of the design of the plane the pilot cannot see straight ahead when he is taxiing on the ground, so he has to zigzag to the end of the runway. When he is given clearance from the control tower we accelerate along the runway. As our speed increases the tail unit lifts giving us our first opportunity to see forward. We have to take off with the cockpit cover open as there are no doors for us to escape in case of trouble. The day was mainly sunny so I was able to enjoy panoramic views which included Lincoln Cathedral and Southwell Priory. Our route took us north to Yorkshire before we retraced our steps and landed safely at our base. I enjoyed the flight which included one loop and a stall test which included a recovery dive. As a result of that flight I was included in the test flight rota. The air-men in the rota are selected from a range of trades dependent on the needs of specific air tests.
From day one of our service it was drummed into us that we must read the notice board every day for the latest information. To forget this instruction could lead to serious consequences. On my fourth day at Syerston much to my surprise my name appeared instructing me to report to the SWO’s office at 9 am on Friday morning. In my mind this could only lead to trouble based on my reception earlier in the week. I approached the engineering officer to see if he could enlighten me, but no joy.
On Friday morning I duly reported to the SWO’s office wearing my best blue in immaculate condition. The CWO informed me that we had to meet the commanding officer at 09.15 subject unknown. The C.O. invited us into his office, we marched in, saluted, and stood to attention. He was reading a bunch of papers and without lifting his head, he told us to stand at ease. He then said “ I see you finished 55th in the inter services games at RAF St Athan last month. How many entrants were there?” I was stunned by this question, and it took me a while to comprehend what he was on about. He was referring to the inter services cross country run in which over three hundred people took part. He was satisfied with my performance within the context of the known competition., He was really interested in my cycling record at St Athan, and was keen to explain that we had an excellent cycling team including Ken Russell who eventually won the Round Great Britain cycle race in the 1950s. After a short discussion he instructed the SWO to issue a weekend rail pass for me to go home and collect my bike. Needless to say I was over whelmed, and could not believe my luck. On the Sunday evening I returned to camp cycling the one hundred and seventeen miles to RAF Syerston, arriving around 03.00 hours. In those days we had no motorways and there was very little traffic on the roads. My route was via Darwen, Bolton, Manchester, Stockport, Whaley Bridge, Chapel-en-le-Frith, Baslow, Chesterfield, Rainworth, Blidworth, and the A6097 to Gunthorpe Bridge and then along the lanes to RAF Syerston. I travelled through the middle of each town and stopped only once for a break. Over the next sixteen months I often varied the journey between Baslow and Syerston looking for alternative routes.
The commanding officer at RAF Syerston was a sports enthusiast and ensured anyone keen on sport would be provided with the best of facilities, In reality any outstanding cycling performer was virtually semi professional. At RAF Syerston all sports orientated people had time off for training and entering civilian events. Transport was often made available including an RAF bus. The training facilities at RAF Cranwell were made available to us.
Around this time the Korean war was causing problems, which resulted in many reservist aircrew being recalled to active service. Our service was increased from eighteen months to two years, and we went onto a five and a half day working week. Our work load increased because many planes had to be re-commissioned, and re-sprayed into the new RAF Training command colours. Originally our planes were painted yellow, but this was changed to silver with yellow bands. I enjoyed the flying experience, we normally fly below 3000 feet, and follow a set routine. The flights can include stalling tests in which the plane loses lift and falls into a dive. The pilot then recovers the plane according to a set formula. Aerobatics are unusual and I only experienced one aerobatic session with our wing commander at the controls. This event happened over RAF Bottesford, one of our satellite airfields. There was only one occasion when our Harvard experienced a problem. On that occasion I was in the front cockpit when the pilot asked if I had a control column in my cockpit. I replied in the affirmative. He then instructed me to take the control column and take the plane up to 1000 feet, and fly straight and level. I was taken by surprise by this instruction but complied. When we returned to base the pilot explained we would have to complete an incident report. He then informed me that he had trouble with his control column which had been incorrectly secured. The Harvard is a very noisy aeroplane because it has a fixed pitch propeller which means in a dive the end of the propeller is travelling at the speed of sound. The only piece of sophisticated equipment installed in the Harvard is the Ground Control Approach (GCA). The system is an electronic beam which directs the plane to the airfield runway via sound in your ears. Sounds straight forward, but you have first to find the beam. Civilians can still fly in Harvards at air shows. The flight is described as the nearest experience you will get to flying in a Spitfire.
In the 1950s we took delivery of the Percival Prentice which is a brand new single engine low wing monoplane with side by side cockpit seats. and a fixed undercarriage. The engine is the same as fitted in the old Tiger Moth which means it is grossly underpowered. It very soon became apparent that the plane was not fit for purpose. Modifications were introduced to reduce overall weight which included removing the third seat, removing wheel fairings and generally reducing the flight envelope. Confirmation of this situation was confirmed when the M.o.D. sold all their Prentices to Freddie Laker an aggressive entrepreneur.
An unexpected job came my way when the RAF was asked to help when the Rivers Trent and Soar suffered severe floods. We used a “Prentice” for this exercise as the cockpit provided an ideal viewing platform. No people or animals required emergency assistance. During the whole of my service at Syerston, we only had one fatality. On that occasion a trainee pilot was doing a solo flight in a Prentice when he was caught in a heavy snow storm. It is believed the pilot became disoriented and crashed near Southwell Priory on the north side of the Trent. On this occasion I was a member of the crash guard team that secured the site, until the plane could be dismantled and taken away. During the three days on site we slept in a bell tent surrounded by deep snow. For heating we had a night watchman’s coke brazier and a good supply of coke.
Inevitably in a pilot training school incidents would occur. Planes would return from flights with chimney pots or parts of trees embedded in their engines, but the low flying record was held by a Harvard plane which returned with soil and carrots in the engine cooling vent. Failure to change fuel tanks was the cause of these problems. 1951 was census year and HM forces are expected assist in scouring the highways and byways for tramps and waifs and strays. During the census night I was allocated a stretch of the Fosse Way, and had the good fortune to find a tramp sleeping in an RAC telephone box. I got an official to record his presence. In all, we discovered eleven people sleeping rough in the area of the airfield.
My final months of service progressed smoothly. When the opportunity arose our cycling club went away for the weekend. On one occasion we called in a transport café and they had a television set showing a cricket match. This was the first occasion that anyone in the cycling club had seen television. Later that day we continued to Stratford-on-Avon and looked for bed and breakfast accommodation. This exercise proved very difficult as the town was celebrating Shakespeare week. During my final month of service we had a station open day which was supported by several thousand visitors, and the station was also a turning point for an international handicap air race. This was a very dangerous event, as the planes ranged from privately owned bi-planes to military jets.
Finally, I signed off with all the Chiefys and returned my form to the Station warrant officer. I am a free man. It was a great feeling to walk out of the station for the last time. Once again no one said “thank you”.
The ending of the Second World War was a gradual process, once the allies had established a secure footing on European soil after D-Day. Civil defence had been winding down for some time. The black-out had been lifted. Tuesday May 8th 1945 was Victory in Europe Day and Prime Minister Churchill declared the country might allow itself 'a brief period of rejoicing.'
Lack of a civic lead and the incessant rain meant the streets were not thronged with rejoicing, as they had been after the sudden cessation of hostilities in the First World War. Mills and schools closed. Many shops closed at midday. Post office staff turned up for work as usual, but were told to go home. There was a service held at the Cathedral.
It was in the evening that celebrations really got under way. At King George's Hall there was a concert put on by ENSA, the military entertainments organisation, officially - the Entertainments National Service Association, unofficially - Every Night Something Awful. Over 2,000 people attended.
Street parties and bonfires sprang up in different parts of the town. Effigies of Hitler were burned and piano accordionists provided the music for singing and dancing. On the Wednesday parties were organised. At one such in Ribblesdale Place 35 children were regaled with trifle, cherries, iced cake, blancmange and five different varieties of biscuits.
For many of course the war was not over. Japan had not surrendered and there were Lancashire servicemen engaged in the fighting, or held as prisoners of war. They would have to wait until August 15th 1945 for the fall of Japan.
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