Thursday, February 9, 2012
Charlie Briggs, Chapter 5 by Roisterer
That wasn't the end of training, by any means, but having the wings meant two things:
Firstly, the sergeants shouted at us just the same, but they added a "Sir!" at the end of every tirade.
Secondly, and more importantly, the cadets were allowed to fly solo. I remember being very nervous that first time. We were to take off, do a circuit, and land. Then the next lad would have a go. I was near the beginning, and I didn't make a mistake. One poor lad misjudged it, and mangled his undercarriage. Cue some muttering amongst the watching instructors, and another fellow failing the school.
Did I mention the mosquitoes? They came out of the woods, together with other biting black things. One lad looked like a phrenologist's statue one morning. It seemed bad for me at the time, but looking back I was complaining about nothing. Once I got a row of bites on my thigh, and found that I was vigorously scratching them when the plane started to go into a dive. That shook me up, I can tell you.
When I landed, Flt Lt Murray didn't even have to say anything. He just gave me the "what was all that about?" look.
October came and went, and some of the trees turned a wonderful colour, especially from up above. Then we got some storms. Those of us who had progressed enough were sent up in the light rain, just to do a circuit in low visibility, but we weren't allowed any altitude.
Then the time came for what Flt Lt Murray called "passing out". For a moment I thought we were all going to get drunk, but no, it was the end of our time in training. Those cadets who had made it as pilots, navigators, gunners and ground crew were going to be deployed. The mother country needed us on active service.
I'd not given much thought to the end of training. We were going to see some action. Harry was raring to go, as were a few others, but me? I was scared as hell.
Truth be told, we'd actually been longer than planned. It was now November, and cold outside, but what we didn't know was the Battle of Britain had turned into the blitz, and there wasn't such a pressing need for fresh blood, at least in that theatre of operations. I didn't know any of this at the time, but my more experienced commanders explained it later.
So we had a passing out parade. Plenty more square bashing and saluting. The CO said a few words, and then those of us who were qualified, plus the injured and failures, had to board the train back.
Canada is a lovely country, and I'd like to see more of it some time. As it was, I was dreading the voyage back to Blighty.
Then a strange thing happened. Only those who were injured got on board a red cross ship. The rest of us didn't board a ship straight away, but headed for a barracks in Halifax. There were cadets from other training camps there, and it all seemed an utter .... Well, I won't use that word, but I'm sure you're getting the idea.
After a couple of days, we were called into the parade ground, and gathered round to hear an announcement.
"Change of plan, lads. Not all of you will be going to jolly old England, in fact most of you will be heading for the Near East."
After being whisked away to Canada, I could take this in my stride. Like Joe, I was going to get to see something of the world. Then I thought of the voyage, and got so depressed I almost missed the next bit.
"... The Jerry subs are making life difficult in the Atlantic, and the Eyties are trying to stop us in the Med."
There was muttering at this.
"Don't worry, the RN will give both of them hell, but we'll need to send you all round the long way, via the Cape of Good Hope."
I took a second to remember School Cert Geography. South Africa? Blimey, I was going to more Imperial outposts than the King.
"We're waiting for a suitable troop ship to be ready. You'll have to wait here until it is. That is all."
And that was it. In the end, it was only four days, but not knowing how long it would be was a real bother. We embarked on to a troopship. I was relieved for the first day, until we hit the first gale. Then I wished I were somewhere else.
That journey was awful. It seemed like I was ill for weeks, but soon enough the weather on deck became warmer, so it was worth braving the diesel fumes. We crossed the line, and gradually made our way to the Cape. It got hot inside the ship, and added to the bad feeling from the motion, I found it hard to get to sleep at night.
Some of the lads offered me a bunch of fags, but to be honest, smoking made me feel worse. I'd seen some of the instructors smoking pipes, and that seemed more fit for an RAF officer.
We didn't stop at Cape Town, but put in at Durban instead. Like so many places I've been, I can't say much about it. We spent less than three days there, of which the cadets got about one day on shore. I'm afraid to say we all headed for the nearest pub and got plastered. It was hot and sticky, the beer was light and fizzy, and there was a black waiter. That's about all I remember.
It was back to lying down and waiting to feel better. Funnily enough, I wasn't getting so sick as before. Maybe I was finding some sea legs.
We spent Christmas somewhere off East Africa. It made me homesick, but we celebrated as best we could. We’d heard that things were not so pleasant in London, and I was worried about my family.
The captain was kind enough to break out the naval rum, which was a drop of good stuff, and under the circumstances, a good time was had by all.
I’d struck up a friendship with a chap called Stanley Burrows. We were next to each other in the alphabet at passing out in Canada, and now we together recovering from seasickness. He was also from Middlesex – "Stanmore Stan" as he put it, and it turned out he’d been to school just a few miles from me.
We stopped again at Aden for a day or two – now that really was a hot place, and I don’t know how Joe could have managed it – and then it was on to Suez. New Year came and went while we were in the Red Sea, so we arrived at Port Suez early in January.
There was still more travelling. We embarked on to a smaller boat up the canal, and then by rail to just outside Cairo.
The group of us made our way to the RAF base in the back of a truck. I noticed that the Sergeant at the gate saluted us and spoke at half volume. I suddenly realised that I outranked him. I sat back thinking that I could get used to this.
Then it was off to the Squadron Leaders’ office. There was a painted name on the door – Sqdrn Ldr Barker. We waited outside to be called in one at a time.
I was first, as it happened. I walked in and saluted smartly. "Cadet Officer Briggs reporting for duty, Sir."