At the age of 19 ½ in early December 1940, Edwin Grainger (my cousin) and I went to Nottingham Recruiting Office on London Road to volunteer for the forces. We went to the Air Force Office and told them that I wanted to volunteer as an Armourer. The officer asked what education I had received and told him it was just elementary. He took details, name, address, date of birth etc. After a further interview (I was asked why I was interested in the Air Force (always interested in aircraft), why did I want to be an armourer (interested in guns, armoury). I was asked to sign a form, and then had to wait.
They were pleased that I was volunteering, not waiting another six months to be called up.
Early in January 1941 I received a letter from the Air Force telling me to report to Padgate, Lancashire, for assessment. I was told in the letter that I was to tell my employer (Aristoc) that I should be away for about five days (I didn’t go back to Aristoc for five and a half years).
I went through the assessment – which involved educational tests in English and Arithmetic and medical tests. This took four or five hours. Here I received my uniform and kit and was admitted into the Royal Air Force.
From Padgate I was posted to Bournemouth in late January for initial training – footslogging. We were in civilian quarters (boarding house). Here we marched up and down the streets of a suburb of Bournemouth. Here we were all taught rifle drill.
After two weeks here we were posted to RAF Bridgenorth in Shropshire to complete this training and after a month of this, I was posted to Stormy Down, near Pyle which is near Bridgend in South Wales. Here I was taught the workings of guns, .38 revolvers, .45 automatic Lewis machine gun, Browning 303, Lee Enfield rifle, 20mm Hispano cannon, gun turrets, bombs of all descriptions. I was at Stormy Down from early February 1941 for about three months.
Whilst at Stormy Down, I met my cousin Edwin who was at St Athens a few miles away where he was taking mechanics course.
I passed the course so well that instead of coming out AC2 (Aircraftsman) I passed out as a AC1 which is a higher rank.
After completing the Armourer’s course I was posted in mid May to RAF Sutton Bridge. This was a flying training school where pilots and air gunners were taught about bombing raids. So on this station I was able to put my knowledge to use looking after gun turrets on the 303 Browning and the bombardiers (bomb aimer) and the air gunners would be taught their skill. Apparently on this station we had some armourers (known as armourer bombs who dealt with bombs only) and the aircraft would go out on practice bombing runs.
Early in August 1941 I was notified that I had been posted abroad now I was given 72 hours embarkation leave, the first since joining up in January.
After the leave I reported to RAF Wilmslow near Manchester airport. I was at Wilmslow for about a week and here I was kitted out with overseas khaki uniform (a thinner material) and kit including mosquito net. From Wilmslow in late August about 100 of us were put on a train, I didn’t know where I was going, but ended up in Glasgow. After about four days we were driven to the docks and put on the Royal Navy cruiser HMS Kenya – again we didn’t know where we were going.
The convoy was made up of five merchantmen, three Royal Navy cruisers, six destroyers. We were given a rum ration whilst on board. The sailors would try to scrounge this off us, thinking we were not used to it!
We called at Gibraltar for re-fuelling and we were kept below decks for at least three days so that no spies on Gibraltar should see that there were any Air Force personnel on board. It must have taken four to six days to get to Gibraltar.
Two days after leaving Gibraltar we were subject to submarine activity, fortunately none of the vessels in the convoy were sunk, but a couple were damaged. Next day the Germany Air Force (Luftwaffe) and the Italian Air Force (Regio Aeronautica) commenced air attacks. There were 15 armourers on board and the air force officer in charge of us volunteered us for gun crew duty. I found myself strapped into an anti-aircraft 20mm Aerlikon cannon. This was on the quarter deck of HMS Kenya below two gun turrets, each containing three six-inch guns for use against surface vessels. The noise from these above us was horrifying.
I fired the 20mm cannon often. As I fired a mate would replace the empty magazine with a full one, each magazine would weigh about 50lbs and contain 25 shells. During the course of the journey the convoy was responsible for shooting down several aircraft. At one stage I actually saw an Italian plane in the water at the side of our cruiser, but no one dare stop to pick up the pilot for fear of being attacked by submarines.
We arrived on Malta on 6 September 1941.
We assembled on the docks in Valetta and then were transported to RAF Kalafrana. To start with we were put in married quarters (a block of flats) until we got settled in and were allocated barrack huts. These were two storey buildings and each storey contained 36 men. Within a few days, whilst I was in married quarters I heard my first bombs drop and was terrified I had never heard anything like this, but eventually got used to it.
Kalafrana was a maintenance unit and sea-plane base – Sunderlands and Katalinas. This is where I spent most of my time repairing gun turrets from Wellington bombers based at Luqa. Luqa and Hal-far (a naval air station) would send damaged aircraft parts to be repaired. We had a Queen Mary lorry to transport large sections of damaged aircraft, fuselages, main planes, wings etc. There was a team who would go out to wrecked aircraft and salvage any re-useable parts.
Whilst at Kalafrana, one day the sirens sounded and I came out of the turret section against the hangar, someone shouted ‘Come on Wilf, it’s the Stukas’ (JU87). I crossed the slipway (where we pulled the Sunderlands out of the water onto land) and went into a gun post at the side of the slipway (a small squat building). The Stukas started to bomb. One of these bombs fell 10 yards away and just broke a corner off a building and later after the raid I found this small building contained air force shoes – of which I helped myself to one pair. I carried these around with me from early 1942 and no-one ever asked me why I had a pair of shoes!
My first Christmas on Malta, the food was actually good. Unfortunately this was the last good food we had. Until that time Malta had been well supplied with food and fuel. This was about to change as the siege which had begun around mid 1941 went on and supplies were cut off as no further convoys got through. The September 1941 convoy was probably the last one to get through more or less unscathed.
Shortly after Christmas, early in 1942, I was posted to Takali where I joined 603 City of Edinborough Spitfire Squadron. The going at Takali was very rough. I was on duty on the airfield from dawn till dusk, probably 12-14 hours. The bulk of the ground crew were billeted under canvas in Bushetti Gardens, the gardens of a large house. The tents were situated on one side of a valley and our neighbours on the other side were the Durham Light Infantry who did everything to the bugle which disturbed us whilst we tried to sleep. We were transported to and from the airfield in the famous Maltese buses which we had commandeered.
Air raids on the airfield were a regular occurrence. First the Germans would come over and bomb the airfield, and then the Italians would come and bomb the runway preventing our Spitfires from taking off.
During the air battles we would get several of the aircraft coming back badly damaged. I remember one aircraft came back without any undercarriage and the pilot didn’t seem to be getting out so several of us ran out to the aircraft and managed to get him out but the ammunition on the plane was exploding around us all the time and was afraid the aircraft would go up in flames at any time. I was helping the medics to get him out and he said to me ‘You will remember this day, won’t you’ I replied ‘Yes, what date is it?’ He said ‘6th June’. I suddenly realised I had missed my 21st birthday on 27 May 1942 by about 10 days. I had been far too busy to realise and had lost all account of time.
I heard on the grapevine that Kalafrana had been heavily bombed and the whole station had been transferred to Gzira just on the outskirts of Silema. Shortly after that the commanding officer who had gone to Gzira with the airmen found out he was six airmen short, someone in records told him we were at Takali! He got us back to the unit at Gzira. Whoever it was who posted us six to Takali probably saved our lives.
Mid to late 1943 I wrote to my then girlfriend Marjorie and said ‘What about us getting engaged’ She bought a ring and sent me a drawing of it. I had met Marjorie at Aristoc in early 1938 when I was 17 and Marjorie was 16.
Just before Christmas 1943 Kalafrana was made habitable again after the bombing and the whole station at Gzira was posted back there. At the Christmas dinner we were told that we were going home. Two months later, in February 1944, we were put on board a unit of the Italian Navy (a cruiser the Scipiano Africano). When Italy surrendered during 1943, the British Navy rounded up the Italian Navy, so the ships were based on Malta. This particular vessel was made use of to transport airmen to Bizerta in what was then French Africa (now Tunisia). After two weeks stay there we were put on board a tank landing craft for onward transmission to the UK. This journey took another two weeks; there were no tanks on board, just 100 Air Force men and the navy crew. The journey was horrendous; due to their shape the motion of the vessel was magnified.
As we approached the UK shores, instead of dropping us at a west coast port, we were taken right up over Shetland (in a blinding snow storm), up the Firth of Fourth, under the Fourth bridge to Edinborough. This after 2 ½ years in the Maltese climate, back to Scotland in February. From there we were brought down to Morecombe to be re-kitted and sent home. Whilst at Morecombe (a non-operational station) we were given the choice of stations to which we could be posted. I put down Hucknall After 2 ½ years I was entitled to approximately three weeks leave which I spent back at my mum and dads and whilst on leave my posting came through and was told to report to RAF Hucknall.
Hucknall was a flying training school, mostly Polish under training pilots. Not much use for armourers. Most of the armourments staff had been there at least two years – a cushy job. One day the Armourment Officer, Warrant Officer Bradley, called me into the office and said ‘you’ve worked on Spitfires, haven’t’ you. There is a Spitfire on the tarmac, go and make sure it’s safe’. Pilots had a failing of leaving the gun button on ‘fire’ (instead of ‘safe’).
Mr Bradley said ‘While you are going, take the corporal with you and show him the ropes’. As we were walking across to the Spitfire, I said ‘Whatever you do, don’t press the gun button’. We arrived at the aircraft, I had a look round the outside, the corporal must have had a look in the cockpit and he did press the gun button, firing the cannon and the machine guns. The aircraft was outside the hangar in ground position, pointing to the top of the hangar and he blew a hole in the hangar. Shortly after that I was posted up to Inverness.
Also whilst at Hucknall I had two weeks at Hucknall’s satellite station in Yorkshire, near Sheffield. The only thing to look after here was a few 303 Lee Enfield rifles, .38 revolvers and about half a dozen signal pistols. Whist here I borrowed the bike and rode to my Aunt Ruth’s in Sheffield. I was at Hucknall about six months. Marjorie and I had our wedding banns read out for one week and then I was posted to Dalcross, near Inverness.
Dalcross was a Welllington bomber station. My Air Force record showed that I had experience on gun turrets so that was my job. When I arrived at Dalcross the commanding officer sent for me and said ‘Wilson, I understand you are getting married in two weeks’ time. Be on the tarmac on 23rd April and we’ll take you down as far as Carlisle with about 12 other airmen. There you can catch a train home’. Marjorie and I were married on 28th April 1945. Our honeymoon was in Matlock and I returned to Dalcross a week later. As I was travelling back to Dalcross I heard on one of the railway stations that the war was over in Europe. A short while later I was made redundant as regards my trade, but still retained on trade pay and was posted down with two others to West Kirby in the Wirral to a WAAF station.
I reported into the guard room and was told to go to the WAAF commanding officer. I went into her office and she noticed that we all had the Africa Star medal ribbon. She said ‘as long as my girls get their mail, I don’t mind how many of you are on the station, you have obviously done your bit’. She immediately gave us a pass to go off the station in turn. This posting suited me fine as my Aunt Sarah (another of my father’s five sisters) lived in Birkenhead which was only at the bottom of the Wirral. Marjorie came up and spent a few days here with me.
From West Kirby I was posted down to Cardington, Bedfordshire, for de-mob. I got a civilian suit and £76.00 – for five and a half year’s service.