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Instructing

Four of us went from Coleby Grange to 9 group HQ at Preston where we spent two days whilst it was decided where we should be sent. We were able to visit F/O Cybulski in Preston Hospital where he had been taken, seriously injured, after crashing into a nearby mountain on Christmas Eve. The matron asked if I would like to see an operation carried out, doubtless thinking I would enjoy the experience: I was able to say the RAF wanted me elsewhere that particular afternoon!

I was posted to No. 62 OTU at Ouston. near Newcastle upon Tyne, arriving there on 30 December 1943 with 287 day and 166 night flying hours to my credit. Ouston, set in beautiful country on the line of the Roman wall, was a comfortable place to be with its brick buildings, a cinema and a good bus service to Newcastle. And there was no night flying so I had every evening free! The OTU used Ansons and the pupils were navigators who were taught to operate AI Mark IV before going to another OTU where they would be crewed up and learn to use a more advanced mark of AI.

Some of the instructors had spent little, if any, time on operations but most of us had recent operational experience on nightfighter squadrons. The OTU's pilots were a mixed bunch, most of them just out of flying school. On the whole they were patient and did not complain, at least to the instructors, about their boring work. Two aircraft would go off together, acting in turn as the target. We flew as high as we could to get the best possible range on the AI, but being without oxygen we had to stay below 10,000 feet. Each flight took about three hours and in winter the Ansons were bitterly cold.

The undercarriage of the Anson was wound up and down by hand. The job could be done, with difficulty, by the pilot, or a pupil could be stuck with it. However, in practice, it was I who usually did the winding. In return I occasionally asked a pilot to change places with me when we were the target; surprisingly some were happy to do this. I must have terrified the pupils for I liked doing steep turns although my ability to pilot an aircraft was on a par with my tractor driving: I had never been shown how to do it, but as it looked easy I was prepared to have a shot at it!

I regarded myself as an experienced AI operator but I needed a few flights with an instructor to find out how to do the teaching. I quickly discovered that I had forgotten or had never needed to know quite a lot. I certainly could not remember how to trace faults on the AI set: I got into a frightful muddle when the instructor tested me by pulling wires off and playing about with the switches. However, I was thought capable enough to go up with my first pupils on 8 January. I soon found that creating faults and getting the pupils to clear them was an amusing way of passing the time when we were acting as the target.

The pupils had to do 12 exercises of increasing difficulty, culminating in the interception of a target taking violent evasive action. Sometimes pilots made the lesson too easy for when doing AI practice in daylight pilots tended, perhaps unconsciously, to watch the target and thus to anticipate the operators' instructions. When chasing a target taking evasive action, I often made signs to the pilot not to change course or speed until the pupil gave an instruction. As a consequence the pilot and I would quite likely see the target going one way whilst the pupil allowed us to go off in another direction.

Each nightfighter airfield had a homing beacon (know as "Mother'') with a range of 20 to 30 miles that showed on the AI set as a blip flashing an identification code in Morse. I told a pupil to home on Ouston's Mother. From time to time he gave a course alteration to the pilot, who together with the other pupil, kept trying to tell me we were going in the wrong direction. I already knew this, for we were heading for Acklington which had a similar identification code. I used signs to warn them to keep quiet. When the pupil said we were over Ouston I told him to look outside. He probably felt a fool, but I hoped he would never again fall to recognise his own mother!

On an afternoon flight we received an urgent recall signal as a blizzard was approaching Ouston. As we came back, slowed by a strong headwind, we could see snow clouds moving in. For an inexperienced pilot and pupil navigators the situation looked grim for all the nearby airfields were closing as the weather deteriorated. Using the capacity to do mental arithmetic induced in me by my father, I calculated that we should be touching down just as the snow started to fall on the runway. I gave the pilot a course for home and reassured the pupils, who were intently watching Mother when not looking at the blizzard. Then I shut my eyes, pretending to take no further interest in the proceedings, leaving the pupils to keep us on the right track. They did, and as we landed, the last aircraft to return, the snow engulfed us. l am sure they learnt a useful lesson: when everything is going against you in the air keep calm, do your sums right and above all make sure the pilot remains confident in your ability to get him home!

It was never out of my mind that when a pupil eventually reached a squadron great demands would be put on him as an airman, not just as an AI operator, and making a mistake of any sort could cost him and his pilot their lives.

Another flight in bad weather did not end so well. We were sent off with fog restricting visibility on the runway to under 800 yards. The undercarriage would not come up so we returned. The inexperienced pilot, nervous because of the fog, made his approach. I advised him to overshoot for as he was coming over the runway's threshold far too high he would be nearly at the far end when he touched down. I said that there was no hurry to land as we had plenty of fuel and the fog would not be getting thicker. He tried again but this time was absolutely determined to put the aircraft down. He did, with only 200 yards of runway ahead: inevitably we continued onto the rough ground beyond.

I was surprised how bad the crash was. I shouted to the pupils to get out and run, then dropping the part of the AI set which had broken loose when I grabbed it, I followed them across the grass. What was annoying about the affair was that I was only making the flight because another instructor had asked me to stand in for him as he wanted to go to Newcastle.

On the whole the instructors were a quiet bunch. Some were quieter and some a bit odder than the rest. One who was a superb knitter always had his wool and needles handy; I am sure he passed his time in the air by carrying on with purl and plain. Johnnie Hunt, with whom I went about, spent his time making large cardboard trumpets to fix on his hand-wound gramophone and sharpening thorns to make needles for it. As for me, I would ride my bicycle along the runway at night with my eyes shut to discover how far I could go before falling off; I learnt a lot of poetry and even wrote some; and I acted for the first time, playing the part of Kenneth in 'French without Tears'.

In August I started to look for a posting. Tony had gone from Grantham to 141 Squadron, a Mosquito fighter squadron in 100 Group of Bomber Command. I had no compunction about pulling strings: I asked if he could tell his CO, C V Winn, now a Wing Commander, that I would like to join the squadron. I did: on 10 October 1944.

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