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MEMOIRS 1939 to 1945 - Stacey Simkins

Heavy Conversion Unit, Topcliffe & Wombleton

Topcliffe was in 6 Group, it was a Canadian station,

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!


On one 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.

Sometimes 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 together so 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 Pickering/Scarborough road 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.

Once there we'd book a room with Mrs Mac, go out for a few drinks and/or a dance, usually 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.

After we 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

The farmer 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 staff.

On the 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!

On one occasion, we'd been on a daylight cross-country when on our return it was discovered 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 the brakes and we used up the whole five miles before we stopped.

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