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MEMOIRS 1939 to 1945 - Stacey Simkins

OTU - Enstone

We got to OTU - Operational Training Unit - around March 1944, and it was there we got "crewed-up". The way they did this was they assembled at the hangar equal numbers of Pilots, Bomb-Aimers, Navigators and Wireless Operators, plus double the number of Air Gunners, and we were told to sort ourselves out with one of each plus two gunners.

I finished up with "Bunny" Hare as Pilot; Harold (Smudge) Smith as Navigator; a Welshman known as Taffy Davis as Bomb-Aimer (I never did know his first name); me as Wireless Operator; and two gunners who'd already paired up, Ken Wheeler and Ivor Saunders. In fact, they'd already decided which one was going where, with Ken at the back and Ivor in the mid-upper turret.

The OTU was at a place called Enstone, about seven or eight miles outside of Oxford, which is where we used to go when we had time off. We would go down to the main road about half a mile away and hitch-hike lifts; on one occasion an ambulance stopped for us.

"Alright, where you going, Oxford?" asked the driver. "Oh yeah, get in the back, but sit on the left hand side".

When we got in we saw why - the stretcher bit on the right hand side was covered up with a sheet, with a body underneath. Very nice!

Training in the Wellington Bomber

The training as a crew was carried out flying on Wellingtons doing circuits-and-bumps, daylight and night-time cross countries, and bombing practice. Sometimes you had a practice bomb which just went down but didn't go off, but usually it was what they call "photos", in other words when the Bomb Aimer pressed his button it took a photo of what was underneath, from which they were able to work out where the bomb would have landed. Funnily enough all the rest of the crew had to have one go each, and we got some hilarious results. I can't remember where mine was, but I don't think the target was actually in the photograph at all, because it's very difficult to judge!

Bomb-aimer holding an F24 aerial camera in the nose of a Blenheim (possibly of No 139 Squadron RAF) during an unescorted aerial photography mission over France.

One night we were on a cross-country heading from Enstone north-west across Wales to the Irish Sea, across the sea to a point near Northern Ireland, north-east across to the north of Scotland, then south down the middle of England. We were flying on what's known as Dead Reckoning, in other words the Navigator had to rely more or less on navigating without any outside aids except timing.

As we were flying across Wales the Navigator came on the intercom and asked the Pilot if he could borrow his watch - both the Navigator and the Pilot were issued with then state-of- the-art watches such as Rotary or Omega, so they would keep good time. But the pilot came back that his had also stopped - so we had two watches that weren't going, which was a little bit worrying as we weren't allowed to go through to direction finding stations and get any fixes or anything. We could have gone miles off-course and finished up either getting shot at by the Southern Irish, or even going straight across without knowing it and finishing up somewhere in the Atlantic.

As luck would have it, about a week before I'd joined up I'd treated myself to a watch from Woolworth’s which cost half-a-crown. As mine was still going I passed it to Smudge, so they navigated on my cheap watch and we eventually got back to Enstone. Of course any incident such as that had to be reported, and we were told:

"Oh yeah, that quite often happens when you're flying over Wales, because of the magnetic influence of the mountains there!".

I thought that’s nice, they should've told us before we went not after!

The Eve of D-Day

On the night of the 5th of June 1944, us and about five other crews were appointed to do what was called a 'Window" exercise. That consisted of having the aircraft fuselage loaded up with bundles of "Window" (strips of aluminium paper in bundles), flying out to a point over the North Sea then "stooging" up one way for a certain length of time at a certain speed whilst the Wireless Operator (me) - who had the flare chute next to him -kept stuffing bundles of "Window" down the chute. Then the plane would turn round and go back the other way, turn again and go back up again, backwards and forwards until all the "Window" was used up. They issued me with two pairs of thick gloves because if you tried doing this with bare hands you would be cut to ribbons.

We had used up all of our "Window" and were stooging back when we got a wireless message saying we had been diverted to nearby Moreton-in-the- Marsh. We subsequently learned this was because it was a bit misty that night, and one of the aircraft - arriving home before us - had had it's undercarriage collapse on landing and was stuck on the runway, so we couldn't land there. The mist at Moreton-in-the-Marsh wasn't too bad, and some crew vans were sent over to take us back to Enstone.

Illustration of a plane’s flight path on Operation ‘Glimmer’, a similar diversionary exercise involving dropping 'window' (chaff) on the eve of D-Day

Each van could carry two crews, and we started off on the way back - not very fast, because by then it really was getting foggy. Of course we had no lights, because of the Blackout. Suddenly we heard this loud bang - we had been hit by a Sherman tank driven by some Americans who were on their way down to the south coast. The accident had completely taken the side off the van, but only one person (a member of the other crew) had been injured (he had a broken elbow). There were no problems for the rest of us, except we had to hang on tight on the way back because there was only one side left on the van!

The next morning we were told we could put it in our log books in red ink, which meant that it counted as an operation. What all us Wellingtons had been doing - stooging up and down dropping "Window" - was to create a diversion, to make sure the Germans kept their north-Germany and Holland based fighters up in that area (because they had no idea if there was a raid coming or not), thus keeping them away from where all the action was taking place in Normandy (the D-Day Landings).

We were given the rest of the day off, so that evening Ken, Ivor, Smudge and myself decided we'd go into Oxford. We hitched a lift up there, and were just deciding which pub we'd go in when we were approached by two Wrens.

"Would you like to go to a dance? Oh come on, it's free!".

On the way, they told us they'd had this dance organised for months, and that soldiers from a nearby camp were supposed to be the dancing partners. But the soldiers had all been sent away, so the Wrens had been sent out in pairs with instructions to bring back anything that had trousers on! When we got there, we found they'd picked up a mixture of Sailors, Soldiers who weren't away, Air Force, and some civilians. Just before 9 o'clock the Commanding Officer of the Wrens came out onto the stage where the little band was playing, and stopped them and announced:

"Right, now we are going to listen to the King's speech."

They brought out a little table and a radio, plugged it in and switched it on, but nothing happened. They took the plug out, looked at it, put it back in again and kicked it, switched on again, but still nothing happened. So the CO came up to the front of the stage:

"Is there anybody out there who knows anything about wireless?" he asked.

I was standing there with an "S" brevet on and "sparks" on my sleeve, so I couldn't do anything else but sort of put my hand up.

"Oh, would you mind coming and having a look at this?" he asked.

I went up on stage with my fingers crossed, because I didn't know anything at all about "domestic" radio - didn't know that much about the insides of the Air Force ones come to that! Anyway, I borrowed a nail file off one of the Wrens and managed to get the back off the radio.

Much to my delight, I noticed a wire dangling, and I thought "Ah! That's got to go somewhere!". Then I also noticed a piece of solder ("Ah! Perhaps it'll go on there!"), so I got hold of the wire and touched it up against the solder, instructing them to switch the radio back on.

They switched it on and the sound came back.

"Oh good! Now we can hear it!"

"Well, I've got to hold this here, I can't leave it or it'll stop again ..."

"Oh carry on then! Fetch him something to sit on, somebody!"

They brought out an empty fire bucket and turned it upside down; I sat there holding the wire against the solder whilst they played God Save the King, after which he came on and did his song-and-dance act, then they played God Save the King again, and finally I could let go. The Commanding Officer came back on the stage.

"Oh well done! A round of applause!". Then he turned to me and said "Come round the back, I've got something for you!"

"Oh no, I can't - I've got three mates with me!"

"Bring them as well!"

So all four of us went round the back and were plied with doses of Navy Rum, after which we didn’t remember a great deal. We did have a vague memory of being in a car which they'd laid on to take us back to the camp, it even drove in right to the door of the hut. I thought afterwards I must have been one of the very few people who've sat through not only one but two renditions of the National Anthem in the presence of a naval Lieutenant Commander and not been, what shall we say, severely chided for it, and in fact applauded.

While we were there, Smudge kept getting paid extra money every pay parade. When he queried this, he was told "Back Pay". He never discovered why or was asked for it back. The extra went into the Post Office and helped to pay for his wedding later.

Shortly after that, we finished our course there and got posted up to a place called Topcliffe, which was HCU (Heavy Conversion Unit).

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