Heavy Conversion Unit, Topcliffe & Wombleton
Topcliffe was in 6 Group, it was a Canadian
and as far as I can remember we were the only British crew
there at the time, and it was where we started getting introduced to
Halifaxes. We also acquired a Flight Engineer, a lad - because he was
a lad, he was only about the same age as me - by the name of Ken
Tyrrell [later to find fame in Formula 1
racing, being the manager of Jackie Stewart, winning 33 Grands Prix
and 3 World Championships].
So we started getting converted to learn what
was what with Halifaxes. Although everything was different -
everybody was in different positions to the Wellingtons (except the
pilot of course!) - we found we were getting on reasonably well. One
day we were going out on a cross-country
- because we didn't do any operations from HCU - and as we got to the
aircraft Taffy, the Bomb Aimer, jumped out of the crew van and broke
his ankle. We were then allocated a Canadian Bomb Aimer by the name
of Red (never knew his first name!)
Flannery who was a bit of a loner, but he fitted in alright.
RAF Topcliffe, showing alignment of the runways
The Canadians were a funny lot, as soon as they
were paid (more than we were!) once a fortnight,
they formed into gambling schools - cards, dice etc - and by the end
of the day about a dozen of them were
well off and the rest were stony broke. We managed to wean Red off
this by the simple method of not lending him any money.
We had other Canadian crews in our hut, always
one lot moving out and a fresh lot moving
in. They never bothered to get any clothes washed, just shoved them
under the bed and got new ones from the
store - so when a lot moved out we had a rummage round and
got some nice shirts or whatever which just needed a wash.
Royal Canadian Air Force Flag
A Near Miss
The aircraft we had were Halifax 1's, clapped
out old veterans ex-squadrons, some of which
were bits of several old ones joined together. You never got the same
aircraft twice so you didn't get a
chance to know it's foibles. Add to that Bunny's eyesight problems,
which we didn't know about, and it's not
surprising we had some pretty hairy take-offs and landings.
When you landed at night all the lights were
switched off and you had to taxi round to a 'pan',
literally like a series of frying pan-shaped areas off the side of
the perimeter, then turn into it so you are off the main track. To
help, the Wireless Operator had to lie in the nose
with the Aldis lamp and shine it down to the left on the edge of the
perimeter so the pilot could get an idea
of where he was. We were doing this one night when the aircraft hit a
bump on the track, which caused it to bounce and consequently the
lamp beam to swing up.
To my horror, I saw a parked aircraft about 8
feet in front of us. Fortunately Ken Tyrrell, who was standing next
to the Pilot, also spotted it so we were able to grind to a halt
before hitting anything - but only just.
So you can say that a bump on the track saved me from
a bump on the head, or worse.
While we were there I got pally with an English
Wireless Operator who was with a Canadian
crew and he invited me to visit him at his home, which was in Blyth,
north of Newcastle. He had gone on leave so with my 48 weekend pass I
made my way to Newcastle then on to
Blyth, both legs of the trip by bus. I found the address and knocked
at the door.
Someone called out "Hang on a minute!"
and there were a lot of scraping and banging noises
before the door finally opened. I found out that the front door
opened directly into the
living room, and was never used because the piano was in front of it.
To get in usually you had to go down the next side road, then along
an alley, to get in by the back yard!
occasion whilst I was home on leave at the same time as Charlie
Griffiths. There wasn't a great deal to do as you can imagine, so he
suggested getting a temporary job in the
factory where his brother had got some work when he had been home.
You got paid for it, cash in hand of course, so we went over to this
wheelbarrow factory called Westovers in River Road, Barking.
you had the job of putting sheets of galvanised steel in to a
machine, which came down, crunching the metal into a shape and
cutting bits out, then you passed them on.
Another time, you had the job of putting those bits into another
machine which crunched
them into the shape of the actual wheelbarrow itself. Having done
that, you passed
them up to somebody else, and they were spot-welded where they folded
they didn’t fall apart. Then they were attached to the other bit
where the wheels go, but they
didn't put the wheels on until they had been dipped into a vat of
black paint - a whole line
of them all hung up on a series of hooks. Fortunately I never had
that job because it was a pretty filthy one. I didn't do that job for
long because you only had a week's leave, but
it was a bit of useful cash.
After about two months we were posted to Wombleton,
just off the
which was the 4 Group H.C.U. The aerodrome was still being built and
the aircraft weren't much better than Topcliffe. However, it was a
bit more accessible to civilisation, i.e.
Scarborough. Every evening a lorry used to take workmen there,
returning the next morning. When we were not flying, we often used to
cadge a lift on the lorry.
we'd book a room with Mrs Mac, go out for a few drinks and/or a
at the Royal Hotel, then stagger back to Mrs Mac's and flop out - all
of us on the bed, but we had to be up to catch the 6 a.m. lorry back.
Lord knows how we did it, but we did. We got friendly with a group of
girls who we used to dance with - one of them, Doreen,
lived with her gran who kept a rather more upmarket boarding house
than Mrs Mac's
(to be honest, there wasn’t any down market after Mrs M's!) and I
managed to persuade her to slip our shirt collars in with Gran's
laundry, and they'd come back nicely starched. The exchanges took
place at the Royal.
moved on, we wrote a couple of times, but it didn't last long. I
expect she found someone
else's collars to wash.
Handley Page Halifax Mark I
whose land was used for the drome was still growing crops (wheat)
between the runways. Needless to say, our take-offs and landings
didn't improve, to the detriment of
the crops, and we found out later that our crew were known as the
Grim Reapers to the ground
Halifax, the Wireless Operator, Navigator and Bomb Aimer's positions
were at the front
of the plane, below the pilot, with the toilet (Elsan) about halfway
down the fuselage. To get to it you had to climb over the main spar
(the bit that holds the wings on) which was about waist high. We were
airborne at about 15 or 16,000 feet one day when Smudge the Navigator
passed by me indicating he was going for a wee. About 10 minutes
later I realised I had not seen him return. I called the pilot to see
if he'd seen him; no, so I said I'd better look for him.
I got to
the main spar, looked over it, and there he was. When flying you had
to wear a Mae
West (Lifejacket) which, if you came down in the sea, you inflated by
pulling down a small
lever to release CO². They are designed to fully inflate at sea
level, but somehow Smudge
had managed to catch his lever on the spar whereupon the Mae West
inflated. At that height it inflates to nearly twice the size, and he
was lying there having his chest crushed
and going blue in the face. Fortunately a part of the equipment on a
Mae West is a
knife, so I quickly found it and punctured the jacket. Once it had
gone down he was able
to breathe again, but he didn't half get told off when we landed,
ruining a lifejacket!
occasion, we'd been on a daylight cross-country when on our return it
that the brakes weren't working: at least, the light didn't come on,
which meant either
the bulb had gone or the brakes had failed - in that event you took
no chances. I informed
control and we were diverted to the emergency field at Driffield,
this had a three-mile
runway with one mile of hard earth at each end. Just as well we did
as it was
and we used up the whole five miles before we stopped.