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Air Training Corps

 

In 1939,  when I was thirteen years old, Britain declared war on Germany.  Anticipating a long war someone thought up the idea of starting up cadet training services for teenagers so that when they became old enough to legally join the services they'd be trained to the point of being combat ready. 

 

Nearby at the town of Crail was the Fleet Air Arm's shore-base #785 Training Squadron, Royal Naval Air Station, H.M.S. Jackdaw. The Waid Academy at Anstruther formed Waid Flight #964 Air Training Corps and I signed up right away. As I knew a bit about navigation and was proficient in Morse code, thanks to my brother Noel, I was assigned to train to became a Navigator/Observer/Radio Operator.  Very shortly I was measured and issued a cadet Air Force blue uniform. (Before ATC uniforms were available, cadets were issued a silver wings lapel badge that gave cadets admittance to all of the Crail Fleet Air Arm aerodrome facilities.) This was the first time in my life that I wore long trousers. Part time for the first eight weeks was to do precision drill "square bashing," while "sloping" an old WWI .303 Lee-Enfield rifle in the Waid Academy's  quadrangle. This really smartened us up. Now to this day as I walk "tall" I still think; left, left, left right left,-----left, left, left right left,---- I had a good job for fifty bob and I left, left, left right left.  Flight training was ground school three nights a week using a Waid Academy classroom  and on Saturdays and Sundays flying out from Crail on attack training torpedo dropping maneuvers in the Firth of Forth. While officially cadet flying days were supposed to be at the week-ends I soon learned that if I skipped school and showed up on any day of the week at Jackdaw's front gate, sentry manned, check in point, that I would always be welcomed in and I could fly on torpedo dropping flights on any day of the week!!! 

 

The airplanes that we flew in were open cockpit, biplane Fairey Swordfish  and Albacore torpedo bombers. The Swordfish had a tubular steel frame that was entirely covered with doped fabric. The enclosed cockpit Albacore that was supposed to replace the Swordfish but never did had an all aluminum fuselage but like the Swordfish it also had fabric covered wings.

 

When in flight and from a distance the Swordfish was most distinguishable from the Albacore by the straight leading edge of its upper wing as opposed to the rounded leading edge wing tip of the Albacore.

 

The war did have its lighter moments. Not long after I enrolled in the Air Training Corps I was fitted for a clip on chest pack parachute harness at the Crail Royal Naval Air Station (RNAS) base HMS Jackdaw.  A pretty young WREN did the honours of fitting me. After she'd pulled all of the adjusting straps to the very end of their adjustments there was still quite a gap between the straps and my crotch. Whoever was the designer of the harness never figured that they would also be worn by boys.  She looked at me and I gave her a questioning, “What now?” look and she just lost her professional cool. Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha, ha.  To solve the problem a Navy rating produced a punching tool to make extra holes in the webbing. We all had a good laugh as the young lady made further adjustments to cinch me in and inked my name on the webbing.

 

HMS Jackdaw had a great dance band and very fine young smartly dressed uniformed Wrens (Womens Royal Naval Service) who on R&R off duty nights sang the hit songs of the war years.  Saturday nights were dance nights at the NAAFI canteen which was in a large Nissen hut and what enchanted evenings these were. "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy" and we cadet boys of the Air Training Corps had a standing invitation to attend. My favorite music is still the dance music of the sentimental 40's.  There will never be another era or time of camaraderie like the 40's. Hell that it took a war to bring it about. 

 

Although newer Albacores were available the pilots who flew the old Swordfish, "Stringbags", as they were nicknamed, were just too in love with the old birds to give them up. The fabric that covered the entire fuselage and wings of the Swordfish was either Grade A cotton or linen. This was made rigid and waterproof by the application of several coats of nitrate or butyrate dope which filled the weave and caused the fabric to shrink  until it became drum taut. When the doping was completed a coating  of silver/aluminium paint was applied to shield the fabric from the harmful effect of the sun's ultra violet rays. Last of all the exterior finish paint job was applied.  Those who worked in the fabric/dope/paint  hangar couldn't help but get higher than a kite.  The  fabric was attached to the framework of the wings, fuselage and the horizontal and vertical tail surfaces by long needles, reinforcing tape and thick cotton thread.  This thick cotton thread or rather thin string was the derivation of the loving term String bag.  To recover a wing, the struts and  the tensioning wires were first detached then the pre sewn fabric envelope that looked like a bag or a sock was pulled over the framework of the wing  from the tip to the root for the fitting and the doping to begin. There are others who think that "Stringbag" has something to do with a vintage Victorian lady's handbag. A good simile, so be it.

 

Any time there was a choice of which airplane to fly, pilots always took the Swordfish. Antiquated as it was the Swordfish was a revered airplane and during the war years, with skilled pilots, it gave a good accounting of itself. The enclosed cockpit Albacore was technically a better airplane and had Morse code radio communication capability. The aerial was a lead ball weighted trailing antenna wire that was unwound down and winched  back up by the radio operator. No Swordfish that I was ever on had  radio of any kind. But even with the lack of radio gear there just was something about the helmet and goggles, open cockpit Swordfish with the wind whistling in the stranded steel strut wires between the wings and the never to be forgotten smell of doped fabric and hot engine oil that appealed to the air crew. With seat of the pants "feel" and the varying sound of the wind in the stranded steel strut wires the Swordfish could be safely taken off, flown, dived and landed without an airspeed indicator. Unlike the Swordfish the Albacore had streamlined tensioning solid stainless steel roll formed struts between the wings that considerably reduced the sound and the drag factors.

 

The fixed pitch propeller Fairey Swordfish first entered service in 1936 and while ancient by today's standards for its day it was state of the art and the latest technology. Fairey designed the Albacore to replace the Swordfish but the Swordfish ended up outliving the Albacore.

 

As most of the Swordfish had no means of communicating by radio of any kind, the job of navigator was of the utmost importance when at sea and out of sight of everything. Keeping track of the aircraft's position and where  the carrier would be on returning was done by dead reckoning navigation plotting on a chart. On this there was no room for error. Dead reckoning was well named. If the navigator didn't keep an accurate track of the aircraft's position the plane could easily run out of fuel and end up crashing into the sea. Several did. Swordfish had fuel for about a total of 3 1/2 hours of flying time. The amount of fuel remaining was always a prime concern.  For every ounce of weight lifted, fuel is required to be consumed. With this a fact most all Swordfish were flown minus and without the weight of the ineffective machine gun that fired to the rear, ammunition for the gun or the gunner.  Although I never saw one, I understand that for special missions there were a few Swordfish that were fitted with a long range fuel tank. A number of Swordfish were shot down as they flew in to the line of fire of enemy ships  but few Swordfish were shot down by bullets from pursuing  enemy aircraft. One of the Swordfish's attributes was that it could fly at very low speed. One of the evasive actions was to do a hammerhead stall, stand the aircraft straight up on its tail so that a pursuing attacking aircraft had no option but to shoot right on by. With the carrier heading in to a good headwind, landings could be accomplished in a very short distance. The need for carrier deck length was an absolute minimum. The same went for take-offs. With a good headwind, just a few feet and these great old birds became airborne. At HMS Jackdaw the runways were painted to resemble the deck length and width of an at sea carrier.

 

A word about the Swordfish pilot. He was really Mr. Everything. Apart from keeping track of where the airplane was, from the moment the engine started, the success of the mission, literally depended on him; his bravery, his piloting skill, his know how, his ability to aim and release the torpedo, everything. He had sole and total control until the aircraft returned to its base and the engine was shut down. The Swordfish had not one door for the crew to get on board. After the pilot climbed up and over the side he was literally shoehorned down into his single place, between the wings, cockpit where he sat on his chute and with his legs straight out on to the rudder pedals. Apart from his soft leather helmet and goggles, a tiny wind break was all he had to shield his face from the hundred mile an hour +- wind speed. With his bulky padded flying suit he had but only an inch or two that he could move in his cramped space. After engine shutdown and being in this one  uncomfortable space for the total time aloft, the physical effort of just moving and getting up out of his cramped for space cockpit while wearing a Mae West life preserver and while still attached to his heavy seat pack parachute took considerable physical strength.

 

A short coming the Swordfish had  was the antiquated method of starting the 9 cylinder, radial, air cooled, 750 h.p. Bristol Pegasus engine. The Swordfish had no electrical push button starting system.  The engine had to be started manually. It boggles the mind that the aircraft that would be sent out to attack the world's most powerful battleship, the Bismarck, had but one engine that could only be started by winding an external hand crank, like an old vintage car. Shades of David with his slingshot as with a pebble he slew the giant Goliath and Don Quixote tilting at windmills. To start the engine of the Swordfish, a cranking handle  had to be inserted into a hole in the left side of the airplane just aft of the engine and in front of the wing.  By a system of a chain and sprockets, (similar to that used on a simple bicycle) just behind the cowling, an inertia flywheel and clutch  were coupled up to the engine to enable it to be turned over. The cranking handle was  wound  by two ground crew persons. One man stood on the left wheel strut and the other stood between the wings.  In the winter time when the engine was cold and the oil was thick it took all the brawn of two strong men to crank start the engine. If the engine didn't start the first time two different ground crew men were needed to make the next attempt.  When the engine coughed and started there were usually loud bangs and a huge cloud of smoke and yes, cheers. Once started and after 10 to 15 minutes of warm-up time the engine idled and ticked over just as smooth as could be.  The "Peggy"  was a very good smooth running, vibration free and  extremely reliable engine. By contrast the Bristol Taurus II radial engine in the Albacore was disliked for its unpredictability which is why Swordfish were flying when Albacores often were not--if the pilots had a choice. One improvement the Albacore had over the Swordfish was that it had an engine starting device that looked like a built in Verey pistol that contained a ten gauge shotgun shell. One Albacore crashed into the sea at West Bay, Earlsferry as a result of the engine losing power at the end of its dive. The injured pilot was rescued. A few weeks later a fishing boat snagged the plane in its trawl net. The wreckage was hoisted on board and deposited on to the end of the west pier at the Anstruther harbour, alongside of the lighthouse. From the wreckage I used a hack saw to remove one of the  monel stainless steel wing tensioning struts.  I used the threaded end to make a dirk for my kilt outfit. I also salvaged its Morse code key. These along with a P.8. compass that came from  a Spitfire that crashed near the railway line at Anstruther have adorned my desk ever since. 

 

 

 Each practice attack consisted of three flights of three airplanes taking off and climbing to 5,000 feet above the runway. This took about 20 minutes.  In formation, the nine aircraft then flew on a heading of 234 degrees True for 6 minutes along the 10 miles of shoreline of the Firth of Forth to the Elie Lighthouse.  On our approach, the target ship, the "Brigadier", that was usually in the bay and right off Earlsferry, would then go to full speed ahead while it made  an evasive, zigzag course. Each aircraft in turn followed the leader as the pilot peeled off and in a dive descended almost vertically to between 50 and 80 feet above the sea.   At 90 knots airspeed, fly straight and level, zero in on the target ship, allow for "offset", release the torpedo, break away and watch as it ran straight and true.  It was always fascinating to watch the wake of the torpedo as it converged with the track of the speeding ship to be at the right place at the right time. A fully loaded 18 inch diameter torpedo weighed just over 1600 pounds.  Practice  torpedoes that had an empty warhead weighed considerably less. With the torpedo being dropped at about a mile from the ship, the ship traveling at say 18 knots and making an evasive maneuver and the torpedo traveling at about 35 knots it took great pilot skill to make a successful attack. Torpedoes were set to run at a depth such that they'd pass under the keel of the target ship.  In all during my training I was along on about 50 practice drops and all of these were in good weather. With the warhead of the torpedo empty the torpedoes floated at the end of their run. A converted trawler fishing boat snared and winched them on to its deck and took them to the Anstruther harbor where they were unloaded on to the pier to be taken back to Crail for reuse.

 

The target ship had a dual purpose. It also was used to train navy recruit anti-aircraft gunners. The gunners used camera guns to record the results of their "shooting down" of the "attacking" airplanes.  It was sobering to say the least when back at the  base we'd get to see the film of their target practice.

 

The pilot that I liked to fly with best was Lt. Commander Maund.  He was a self starter if ever there was one. He made things happen. When I first met him at Crail he was actually on shore leave from aircraft carrier duty and for some unknown reason he took me under his wing. Being at Crail wasn't exactly leave as  he chose to spend his leave as the leader of flights of 8 in-training  aircraft.  When he was truly off duty for the day he had a de Havilland Tiger Moth that he liked to fly. On several occasions he took me along with him.  He showed me how to loop, roll and do several other aerobatic maneuvers in it. ( Later in life flying, building and maintaining small airplanes became my lifelong hobby)

 

 In addition to being a friendly, outgoing person, Lieutenant Commander Maund was a born leader.  He was purposeful, tactful, skillful, knowledgeable and a courageous man.  Had he had no gold stripes at all, signifying his rank, he would have had the same respect from all who knew him.  He had great charisma.  In today's words, "He was the right stuff."  At that time his father was captain of the aircraft carrier, Ark Royal. 

 

In adverse conditions it's nothing short of miraculous that in foul weather and with an armed  torpedo slung underneath that the crews of these airplanes in open, exposed to the weather, cockpits ever made it off the wind blown salt spray covered deck of the heaving carrier, found  their target or that they ever found their way back to and were able to land on their carrier. In addition to all of that sometimes they had to do it in the dark of night.

 

To the British the battleship HMS Hood represented Right, Might, Empire and the keeper of world peace. When the untried German battleship Bismarck broke out into the Atlantic by way of the Denmark Strait we thought well the Hood will take care of this upstart in short order. Imagine our dismay when the Bismarck at extreme long range, in poor visibility and in rough sea conditions, in the space of only a few minutes sent the Hood to the bottom. Similar to the British did the Bismarck have on board equipment that could determine the direction and range of another vessel which the Royal Navy had been developing and did have on board the Hood? Equipment that was given the name RADAR. (Radio, Direction and Range.) By the use of Radar a ship can operate regardless of the weather or optical visibility. If so HMS Hood may have been the first battleship ever to be sunk as the result of the guns on another ship being directed by Radar. Only 3 of the Hood's crew of 1418 were saved.  We regarded our seasoned battleship The Hood to be invincible and unsinkable. We stood taller just thinking about it and now unbelievably it was gone. Radar equipment or not it wasn't luck that sank the Hood. If the Germans could sink the Hood as they did what could they not do?

This is when Winston Churchill showed what he was made of. In just a few memorable words he growled his order to the navy, "I don't care how you do it, you must sink the Bismarck." (Full movie 1 hour and 37 minutes.)

 

On the evening of May 26, 1941  an attack on the fleeing  German battleship Bismarck by courageous Swordfish pilots, flying off from the pitching deck of the carrier Ark Royal, just before dark and in horrrrible weather, launched a torpedo attack that knocked out the steering gear of the Bismarck. Had this one hit not been made it's more than likely that the Bismarck under cover of darkness would have escaped by making it to the port of  Brest in France where it was heading.  Next morning, May 27th, when our battleships caught up and arrived on the scene and found that the Bismarck could only steer in a circle the big guns of the fleet pulverized the Bismarck sending it to the bottom. Of the 2400 men who had been on board the Bismarck only 118 survived the sinking. In less than a week after the sinking of our battleship, HMS Hood, the British Navy and its Fleet Air Arm  had more than evened the score. Had the Bismarck escaped to sink everything in sight that moved in the Atlantic the war may have ended much sooner than it did.  It wasn't luck that enabled that one torpedo. which was within seconds or inches of being a miss, to hit and jam the rudder of the Bismarck.  It was naval teamwork,  bravery, skill, tenacity, determination and the absolute belief of that British Swordfish pilot who, in the face of head on gunfire and the elements, pressed home his attack.  He was well aware that he and his crew stood a very good chance of being killed in action.  The moment of truth. The supreme sacrifice.

 

Not to be forgotten is that the Hood/Bismarck skirmish, in less than one week, snuffed out the lives of three thousand, six hundred and ninety seven men, (3697) a number of whom were yet teenagers and the world's two most powerful battleships were piles of scrap iron on the floor of the ocean.

 

Later that same year, on November 14, 1941, I was again flying with Lt. Commander Maund.  On that morning as we landed back at Crail  a WREN approached the Swordfish as we were climbing out and handed the Lieutenant a message.  "The admiralty regrets to inform you that today the Ark Royal has been torpedoed and sunk near Gibraltar in the Mediterranean.  As of this time, your father is unaccounted for." Such is war. As it turned out all of the crew of the Ark Royal except one survived the sinking.

 

The news of the loss of the Ark Royal and possibly his father stunned the lieutenant but it only increased the determination of the two-and-a-half-gold-striper.  The last flight we'd been on was supposed to have been his last for the day but instead of calling it quits he led training flight after training flight until it was well after dark. That was the kind of man he was. 

 

At that time I was 15 years old and still a cadet.

 

 

 

In addition to this navy duffle coat, leather helmet, goggles, gloves and fleece lined cold weather flying boots I also wore a Mae West flotation vest and a harness for a clip-on chest pack parachute. That's not a stethoscope but it's sort of one. It's my listening "Gosport" tube connection from the pilot to my ears.

 

Boys, or were we?

I'm in the back row, far right.

 

 

Inspection Day. I'm third from the left.

 

Today the hangars and the planes of RNAS Crail are gone as are the uniformed young men and women who lived on this point of land that jutts into the North Sea. Silent dandelions now grow in the cracks and wave in the breeze of what are the remains of Crail's runways and its control tower. There are now only a few  who remember 1939 and the vibrant war days of H.M.S. Jackdaw, the Swordfish,  the Albacore  and the yesteryear that was.