Operational Training Unit
At a mid-morning break the newly arrived ROs were introduced to their prospective pilots. We were put together and left to sort ourselves out. I suspect the pilots had been told something about us but we knew nothing about them.
I was sitting at a table, wondering how to choose a pilot, when one of them came across to me. He said he was the youngest on his course and had been told I was the youngest on mine so would I crew up with him. To me this seemed as good a basis as any for picking each other. When I asked him how many flying hours he had I was not impressed by his total, but he was even less impressed by my 33 hours. So Tony (Sgt E A Lampkin) and I became a crew. He was a short thuggish looking Liverpudlian, full of self confidence and as I soon found out, possessed of enough gall to talk his way out of any situation. From the start we were a good crew. We quickly became firm friends and in the air we had absolute trust in each other.
Tony, who had done his flying training in Canada, had been at Cranfield for several weeks flying the Blenheim IV and getting experience on the Havoc, the type of aircraft on which we would become operational, as well as learning to cope with flying in this country under wartime conditions. He had already managed to wreck a Blenheim, having banged into a crane parked near the perimeter track. He talked his way out of that spot of trouble by arguing that the crane must have been too near the edge of the perimeter track though the opinion of the other pilots was that he talked higher authority into believing that the stationary crane hit him!
Tony spent the next two weeks night flying, alone or with an instructor. Then on 15 April l made my first flight with him. This was to do an NFT (Night Flying Test) on a Blenheim in preparation for a flight that night. Doing an NFT, usually in the afternoon, was a standard procedure to ensure that an aircraft was in all respects ready for night flying. We did not fly that night, but on l7 April I went up in the dark for the first tame. We had to wait at the end of the runway for over an hour while a crashed aircraft was taken away. I went to sleep and was still not fully awake when we took off just before 2am. I enjoyed the flight enormously and by the time we got back. after three hours practising R/T (Radio Telephony) homings and climbing as high as the aircraft would go, I knew that flying at night was the most thrilling thing it was possible to do.
The Blenheims were old and ropey and Tony and I had our share of frights with them. Before I arrived he was taking one off solo for the first time at night and as he became airborne the hand of the ASI (Air Speed Indicator) fell off. It must have been a worrying experience!
I was worried in my turn on a flight in a Blenheim flown by an instructor with me in the navigator's position in the nose. Without warning the emergency hatch fell out leaving me looking at the ground some 10,000 feet below through a gaping hole under my feet. Doubtless soon afterwards somebody in Bedfordshire was wondering where a large piece of aeroplane had come from.
Tony and I went off one night to do a "battle climb"' which meant getting the Blenheim to go up as fast as possible, engines flat out. At about 10,000 feet we saw that both engines were on fire. Tony told Cranfield we had to land immediately as we were on fire and dived for home. Rather puzzled, but relieved, we saw the fires dimming and going out. We landed and it was explained to Tony that as for some reason no paste had been put on the cowlings to stop them glowing when the engines got hot, it was inevitable that they would glow when climbing under full power and dim when diving with the engines throttled back.
One afternoon we were to do an NFT but when Tony ran the engines up he was not satisfied with them as he had a "200 mag drop"' on each (far too high a figure).
"Chalky, get out. I'm not taking this aircraft."
With me following dutifully behind, Tony marched back to the flight office. The Warrant Officer, with many years of service in the RAF, who was responsible for the aircraft was confronted by Tony who told him, "I'm not taking the aircraft, it's unserviceable.''
"What's wrong with it?"
"There's a 200 mag drop on each engine."
"Listen Sonny. In this air-force you learn to fly ropey aircraft before we give you good ones. Get out there and fly it!''
A subdued Tony walked back to the aircraft followed by his dutiful but by now nervous RO who was wondering what horrors a 200 mag drop portended. Sonny did as he was told!
One lesson I learnt the hard way: always carry maps. I was hanging about outside the crew room when Tony asked if I would come round the circuit with him to do an NFT, the whole business to take only a few minutes. I collected my parachute but did not bother about any of the tools of my trade as the day was so clear and the flight was to be so short. Of course the inevitable happened: we got lost and as the radio did not work it seemed likely we would have to suffer the ignominy of landing at an airfield, of which there were plenty about, in order to ask our way. Then I saw the barrage balloons at Cardington and knew where we were.
Every flight brought something new. One moonlit night high over Leeds in a Blenheim, without guns and without AI, we saw a Ju88 slowly crossing above us only two or three hundred feet away. There was nothing we could do except immediately report what we had seen
The possibility of having German intruders seeking out the airfield at night and attacking us as we landed was a worry. In a Blenheim we would be helpless, but the Havoc had a machine gun in the rear cockpit where the RO sat. When we came into the circuit before landing I would open the canopy and push out the gun. It was just a gesture as the gun could only traverse 20 degrees or so on either side because the slipstream prevented it turning further. Although it was a Vickers gas operated machine gun, about which I remembered something from ITW days, I had not the slightest idea how to aim it at a moving target. I suppose it gave Tony confidence having a rear gunner who though he could not shoot kept a very good lockout!
Our time at OTU was drawing to a close and like the other crews Tony and I were impatient to learn to which Fighter Command unit we would be sent. We knew there were some Havocs equipped with guns but that a lot of the units had "Turbinlite"' aircraft (Havocs carrying a searchlight but no weapons). It was to one of these we were posted, 1459 Flight stationed at Hibaldstow in Lincolnshire. We arrived there on 27 May 1942. I was confident that with my 74 flying hours, 15 of them at night, I was quite ready to be let loose on the German Airforce!