Harry Turner's Episodes of Personal History
RAF Service : January 1945    | HISTORY Page | Obituary Page |


Harry Turner in RAF uniformINSTEAD OF CATCHING UP with some expected and long-delayed leave at the end of a freezing January, I find myself reporting for a gunnery course. I am working on ground radar, moving around small RAF installations on the east coast. Life has been made uncomfortable for us recently by enemy fighters tagging, undetected, behind returning bombers in the early morning hours, then sneaking down to shoot up the cluster of huts and telltale aerial masts of operational sites.

We miss the RAF Regiment, formed to protect airfields and installations, but moved to Europe after D-Day. Technicians are now expected to deal with these surprise calls by manning spare Browning guns, salvaged from wrecked bombers and hastily rigged up at strategic points. In view of our amateur status as gunners, we are despatched at discreet intervals to train on a range near Langham, on the Norfolk coast. My name’s just come up.

Freezing white mist smothers the countryside the day I travel down to Peterborough. There’s a long wait until the connecting train steams off at a snail’s pace, lingering at every hamlet along the way before sliding to a halt at Thursford station, nearest stop to the camp. A score or so airmen jump down and assemble on the platform, to be greeted by a muffled-up WAAF driver and escorted to a covered lorry in the station yard.

—Stow yer gear lads, while I finish me tea, she calls, disappearing into the warmth and light of the station office where she is being entertained by a sociable porter. We wait impatiently in the growing dusk until she eventually clambers into the cab. The engine, which has been quietly ticking over, promptly sputters and dies. The petrol tank has run dry; by the time it’s refilled, the engine has cooled and refuses to restart. Grumbling, we disembark and for a hectic period, slipping in the snow, push the lorry up and down the yard in a fruitless effort to get it going. A voice suggests the driver phone for another lorry before we all freeze to bloody death.

Obstinately, she insists we push the vehicle on to the road to see if it will start on the downhill slope. After fruitless argument, a few pragmatists shunt the truck out of the yard, only to get stuck on the level crossing. They promptly announce they are pissed off and will do no more. A wit suggests they only have to wait for the next train to dislodge the stalled transport. At this the WAAF panics, pleads for one last effort. A concerted heave skates the lorry safely on to the road, amid wild cheers, just as the gates begin to close for an approaching train.

But the engine remains stubbornly dead. In desperation the driver phones the camp from the station office but nothing can be done until another lorry is due to pass the station later. Most of our party promptly disappear with the WAAF in search of a pub, which she swears is only a mile down the road. When the relief vehicle arrives, it is already well filled, and once the baggage is loaded there is scarcely room for us to squeeze on. We abandon the pubcrawlers to their carousing.

Langham is a dispersed camp, with isolated huts and sites scattered every few miles along the way. A godforsaken dump attest the inmates as our truck crawls cautiously along the icy road, dropping people off in the darkness near their billets. On arrival at the orderly room we are welcomed with grub and hot drinks before being led to our quarters, an empty Nissen hut huddled in the corner of a desolate field. Lighting the solitary oil lamp reveals a token scuttle of fireproof RAF coke beside a cold stove, but after manhandling all the kit nobody has the energy to try and light a fire at so late an hour.

We make up our beds but the blankets provided are worn and thin, offering little comfort against the all-pervading chill. In desperation we roll ourselves in the blankets fully clothed, and are dozing fitfully when the rest of the party staggers in at some unholy hour, singing cheerily, bringing a blast of frigid air and provoking howls of protest from those abed.

A vigorous banging on the corrugated iron wall of the hut rouses us next morning. Gray light filters through the blackout over the end windows and it seems colder than ever. After a painful icy-water shave in semi-darkness, I coax a dull gleam on muddied boots, bestow a token rub on the brass buttons of my greatcoat, and hope I’ll get by on parade. My rumpled uniform is hidden under the coat—I pray the creases will drop out in time.

We look a sorry lot lined up outside the hut for cursory inspection by a sarcastic sergeant-instructor. A hard-bitten regular of dour countenance and upright bearing, he views us with open contempt as we shuffle into formation before marching down to the cookhouse. Over breakfast the consensus is that Sergeant Melville looks a mean bastard.
—You can wipe that smile off yer face, he calls out. I glance round to see who has caused offence.
—I’m talking to you, yer supercilious sod.
He’s glaring at me. I’m told when my mind wanders during moments of boredom a seraphic smile creeps on my face, a smile that disciplinarians invariably interpret as dumb insolence. I hastily try to cover up with a serious frown.
—Just watch it, Iaddy, comes the dark warning as we move off to the armoury.

The whole of that first day is spent stripping down a Browning gun, then reassembling it, following the sergeant’s lead in the ritual of the naming of the parts, chanting in unison: this ‘ere is the sear, this ‘ere is the sear spring, this ‘ere is the sear spring retainer, this ere is the sear spring retainer keeper... And on and on until every bit and piece has been named and its precise location memorised. Then everyone has to perform the ritual solo. Melville is persistent and impatient, harshly correcting faulty memories and fumbling fingers. After all the parroting, the litany stays with you for ever.

By the time Melville releases us to the glacial comfort of our billet someone has scrounged some old newspapers, another salvaged a broken packing case from a rubbish dump. A fire is lit in the stove, pieces of coke dropped in and coaxed to a glow. We huddle round, grateful for the warmth, heat some water, make a brew, and later are able to wash in comparative comfort. Sleep comes easier that night.

Next morning things improve as a watery sun creeps out of the clouds, though the sergeant’s craggy face remains bleak as he marches us down to the beach. Twin Browning guns, mounted on a swivelling frame, are positioned in a sandbagged post on the shoreline. An ancient biplane drones over the sea, towing a drogue for our practice. Melville spends most of the day putting us through the routines of sighting and guiding the unloaded guns to follow the drogue as it passes through the firing arc.

We return the following day, handling live ammunition, working in couples, one manning the gun, the other checking and feeding the ammo belts. Basically, all that Melville demands is that the gunner faces the aircraft as it approaches on its run, sights on the drogue and follows it, firing the guns as it moves across, but ceasing well before the tail of the plane is in danger of being shot off. As a precaution, your mate slaps you on the back as warning when this crucial part of the traverse is reached.

It doesn’t work so well in practice. Some gunners seem dazed by the heavy pounding of the guns, trigger-fingers become inextricably locked so the guns continue to blaze away despite frantic back-slapping. Then Melville curses forcefully and fluently, manhandles the culprit off the guns and hurls him to the ground before any damage is done. This happens several times—a nerve-wracking spectacle when you are standing by, stamping your feet in the cold, waiting your turn.

Melville looks drawn, chewing his lower lip as each lunatic goes up to the firing bay. I’d had problems the day before, when my metal-rimmed specs kept snagging the padded gun sight. Firing live ammunition brings fresh problems. I align the drogue in the sights all right, but the moment I start firing, the violent recoil hammers my face into the padding with such force that my specs frame is moulded round my skull, the lenses press on my eyes and effectively blind me. So I automatically stop firing in good time, with no danger to the volunteer pilot up aloft, out of an urgent need to bend my specs back into shape before the plane makes its return run. Prepared to be bollocked by Melville I step back into the group, am surprised instead to hear a terse word of approval for ‘good control’.

I watch him as the session drags on, tense and taut, eyes momentarily rising heavenwards at some fresh gaffe by a trainee. As a raw and reluctant recruit to the wartime RAF I formed a low opinion of n.c.o.s in charge of drill, weapon training and assault courses. Sadists all, I decided. Then later, experience made me realise just what these people had to contend with: what Melville faced as a matter of daily routine.

I recall instructors on the practice ranges, coping with nervous idiots with semi-paralysed arms who weakly lob live grenades too close for comfort or in a dread moment, agitatedly drop them in the throwing bay after pulling out the priming pin, disaster averted only by the prompt reflex disposal of the threat by an alert instructor. I begin to feel some grudging respect for the sergeant as he makes us double back along the frozen lane to the camp at the end of that afternoon.

Our relationship with Melville remains distant. He bullies us for the rest of the week on that lonely range on the seashore. Protected by the sergeants aggressive way with incompetents, the pilot happily survives our murderous attentions. When we mark the end of the course with a half-hearted booze-up, Melville ignores our invitation to attend. He obviously sees little to celebrate faced with the prospect of yet another squad of incompetents arriving the following week.

Back at the radar site, I am still pressing for action on the matter of overdue leave when my course report filters through.
—See you’ve been recommended as a Browning instructor, grins the orderly room corporal, handing me a slip of paper.
—You must be joking!
But he isn’t, though I suspect that Melville had his tongue stuck firmly in his cheek when he signed that chit... ■

© Harry Turner, 1993.

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