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Michael Brunning Strubell (1918-2001)
I was born on November 28, 1918 - seventeen days after the signing of the Armistice ending World War I. Because my father had been a serving officer In the war, I was allowed to be born in a private nursing home in Regent's Park - casually situated opposite the monkey house of the London zoo, as my schoolmates never failed to remind me when they found out.
My recollections of infancy and childhood are not extensive. I was told that we lived for a time in Reigate, but, although there was a photograph of me playing in the garden of our house there, I have no clear recollection of that period. What I do remember with reasonable clarity is the flat my parents rented in Addison Court Gardens, a short distance from the Olympia, the exhibition centre for such annual spectacles as the Ideal Homes Exhibition, the Royal Tournament and the Circus.
I am told that at one year's Tournament, (which was the showcase for the Armed Forces to display their particular talents, specialities and innovations), I played a leading role in one of the events; I must have been five or six years old at the time. The Royal Tournament always featured a set-piece depicting an incident in the history of one of the units taking part. In the particular year In question, the organizers chose to enact the repulse by tropically-dressed British troops of an attack by "Sudanese tribesmen" portrayed by British soldiery suitably dressed (or undressed?) for the part. After the initial onslaught, the boys In khaki started to get the upper hand and the "Fuzzy-wuzzies" (so-called because of their golliwog hair-do) were beginning to fall like flies. It would be supposed that I, as a patriotic offspring of an ex-Serviceman, would have enthusiastically applauded this development. Not so. To the astonishment of all concerned - not to mention the embarrassment of my suffering parents - I apparently rose to my feet, stood on my seat and shrieked at the top of my voice: "Stop, stop, you naughty people! I hope you get dirt in your mouths!" I am told that this outburst, In a high, impassioned treble, literally stopped the show, at least for a few seconds, while participants and audience endeavoured to reconcile this intervention with the general scenario.
Of the flat in Addison Court Gardens I clearly remember the long passage from the front door to my nursery at the far end, the nursery itself, the sitting- room (never entirely free from the smell of tobacco-smoke) to which I was only admitted when my parents had guests to whom they wished to show me off. Of the rest of the flat I have but the vaguest memory, except perhaps for the kitchen.
I had a wonderful nanny, of whom I have only the fondest memories, which still today affect me emotionally when I recall them. She used to take me In a perambulator from our flat to Kensington Gardens, well over a mile tram door to gate. As often as not, we would pass "Sunny", our Irish terrier and as independent-minded an animal as God ever created, coming back from the park on his way home. No question of him joining us though; his "constitutional" was entirely his own affair and not to be interfered with or shared.
I say I have only the fondest memories of my nanny; that is not quite true. One day, while throwing a particularly reprehensible tantrum, I hurled a tin plate at her which hit her on the chin. It was obviously very painful because, although she did her best to repress them, she was reduced to tears. The effect this had on me was indelible; l can never forget, for as long as I live, how horrified I felt at seeing her, a grown-up, in tears as a result of what I, as a child, had done to one whom I loved almost as much as if she had been my mother. Thank God, the incident never adversely affected our subsequent relationship. She was the archetypal treasure which only the luckiest of families can ever hope to be blessed with.
I shall never know how it was that my parents decided to send me to the Froebel Educational Institute, near Baron’s Court underground tube Station in Kensington. It was a providential move which I believe to have been primarily responsible for any scholastic success I may subsequently have achieved. My mother showed similar "flair" when she later removed me from a country boarding school and talked the High Master of St Paul's School in Landon into accepting me as a prospective Oxbridge candidate.
The move was more successful than either of us could have dreamed of. My two years at St Paul's - situated then opposite Lyons Cadby Hall - in the period 1935-37, were happy and productive. After an initial "hiccough" in the Modern Languages Vlllth, I found myself studying for a Modern History scholarship In Philip Whitting's History Vlllth. The advantage of having Philip Whitting to teach one History put one in a different category - however indifferent one's inherent capacity - when up against less fortunately endowed competitors. Indicative of this is the fact that of the History Vlllth class of my year, all but one of us won scholarships or exhibitions to "Oxbridge" and he went into "the City" or emigrated or something. History lessons from Whitting were a priceless, positive experience.
Whereas I was never really happy at boarding school in the country - virtually separated from my parents during term-time - at St. Paul's I was in constant contact with home life. Going to school in the morning and knowing that I would be home in the evening gave me a sense of contentment that I had never previously experienced.
Scholastically, therefore, I could not have been in better hands. Nor were the sporting opportunities lesser. In my first tern, as a "late entry" (I was a couple of months short of my 17th birthday) I was fortunate enough to advance from the School rugby football 3rd XV to the 1st XV in the space of two weeks, being awarded my 1st XV colours, ironically enough, after a particularly heavy defeat by a talented Bedford School XV. I was also lucky to be selected to play for the Middlesex Public Schools XV for two successive years which stood me in good stead when I went up to Oxford In October 1937 and was selected to play in the Freshmen's (or first term undergraduates’) and Final Trials.
After two unsuccessful Oxbridge scholarship "sorties", I had finally been awarded an Open Exhibition to Pembroke College, Oxford, and took up residence there in October, 1937. Settling in was no hardship as there were other Paulines already in residence there whom I had known at school. I say "no hardship', but that was not quite the case. I had to be "initiated", and, as far as I remember, (which in most cases is practically impossible) this involved having to imbibe an excessive quantity of the excellent, but deceptively patent, College beer. lf Pembroke beer was widely appreciated, the reputation of its port in discriminating university circles was legendary, thanks to the unerring selective prowess al the college's Senior Tutor, Mr Drake, who was in charge of the stocking and re-stocking of the College's cellars (at least insofar as the items reserved for the Senior Common Room were concerned).
lf the primary object of a young man's university education be to enhance his prospects of success in whatever career he is deemed to be fitted for, prowess in one or more sports can play an important part in the process. It is understandable therefore that the captains and committees of the various university sporting teams keep themselves briefed regarding promising secondary school athletes and players schedule to "come up" in the first term of a new university year. Unfortunately, I had been inadequately 'briefed' as to how to conduct myself when I was chosen to play in the initial matches. To go from public school rugby football and find oneself within weeks in physical contact with international "stars" was, for me at least, an incredible experience. My automatic reaction therefore, after the final whistle of the Final Trial in which I had been selected to play, was to have my shower as quickly as possible and betake myself unobtrusively back to my college. It was not for some weeks that I was to find out what a gross error I had made. The fact that I had not 'had a beer' after the game with the rest of the players stamped me as being rather a "strange type" and it was only after I had had several matches in the Richmond 1st XV and knocked back the odd "noggin" afterwards that my sociability was recognized. Thereafter all was well and I had my fair share of representative games, at least as a "Greyhound" (the Oxford equivalent of the Cambridge University "LX” Rugby Football club).
The process was vastly assisted by the fact that one of the friends of the family was Hylton Cleaver, a renowned London press sports correspondent, who was kind enough to write favourably about me in matches covered by him in which I had played creditably. I shall always be grateful too to the late Paul Cooke (the current University and England scrum-half), for "headhunting" me for membership of the Richmond Rugby Football Club, of which he was the representative at Oxford. As fine a person as one could hope to meet in a lifetime, Paul was tragically killed at Dunkirk in World War II.
Primarily, one attends university to take a degree and thereby qualify for a goad opportunity in whatever field of activity one chooses thereafter. At Oxford, in my time, before World War II - the system may well be somewhat different nowadays - an undergraduate had to pass a preliminary examination before getting down to serious study of the subject in which he or she aspired to take a degree. In any case, an intending student of Modern History, the exam was known as "Pass Mods". For my first two terms I was too busy enjoying myself to devote time to studying, with the result that I failed lamentable on the first two occasions I sat the exam. Not surprisingly therefore, I was warned by my college tutor that if I was unsuccessful a third time I would certainly be "rusticated". (To be "rusticated" meant that, in the circumstances, further studying to pass this particular examination would have to be undertaken off university premises).
Fortunately, I had a friend in the college who took me in hand and "kept my nose to the grindstone" in no uncertain manner. I never studied so hard, before or alter, as I did my third term at university. Thanks to this friend, Freddy Philips - also sadly killed at Dunkirk - I therefore finally passed the exam and could then proceed to get down to studying for my degree while indulging my passion for Rugby football.
Apart from lectures, which could be at one or more colleges from one end of Oxford to the other, an undergraduate would be required to attend "tutorials" in the rooms of the don in one's college who specialized in the subject in which one hoped to get a degree. He would set the topic on which one had be expected to write an essay to be read before him at a prescribed date and time each week. It was a relaxed occasion, unless one had neglected to do one’s “homework”- and generally very instructive. There were some dons, though, who had a set routine which they followed year after year without any modification or “update".
But not all the hoary anecdotes were about the eccentricities of dons as lecturers. There was at least one don, tradition has it, who was prepared to counter-attack. He was a misogynist, for a start, and had noted that his women students were assiduous 'note-takers". Tradition has it that one day he entered the lecture-room, looked around at his mixed class, said "Good morning!" and followed this up by saying: "Have you got that down, ladies?".
Two years went by and in the summer "Vac" (vacation) of 1939 I was spending a fortnight in Pembrokeshire (South Wales) at the country house of a Welsh solicitor who stood 'in loco parentis' to the former schoolfriend of mine who had so kindly invited me to accompany him. We were there then when Britain declared war an Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany on September 3rd that year.
It seemed the natural thing to do for us to make our way, the two of us, to the nearest recruiting office or Army unit. I believe we enlisted in Cardigan, but our ways parted there because, having trained as a potential artillery officer during the two years I had already spent at Oxford, I was posted straightaway to the nearest Territorial Army artillery unit, in Haverfordwest; my friend, not being a 'gunner', went elsewhere, and I regret that after this parting of the ways there, Peter Wetherall and I lost touch.
The Royal Artillery was in the process of replacing the obsolescent (if not outright obsolete) 18-pounder with modern 25-pounders (there was a world of difference between the two), so that gun drill at Catterick was similar to that I had been used to at Oxford. It was a surprise therefore when I found myself posted to a 3.7” howitzer regiment, the ordinance of which was being “renovated" at Woolwich Arsenal. So, for a time, we bad no guns to drill with and training sessions were somewhat bizarre with gun crews being called upon to use their imagination to the utmost.
No one who has been called upon to serve in a 3.7” howitzer unit can ever possibly have regretted the opportunity and his good fortune to do so. I suppose it was the Indian Army which had most experience of this versatile piece of ordinance. It could be horse-drawn or taken apart with its components loaded on to pack mules, and manhandled into position. Its accuracy was such that when necessary, for instance when ranging an to a "target" as small as a dustbin-lid, the final direct hit might first sometimes have to be accomplished by "running-up" (physically manhandling) the gun a matter of a few feet, a reduced distance to which it was mechanically or instrumentally unable to adjust.
I “passed out” at Catterick and was duly posted with others of my course to the Royal Artillery depôt at Woolwich in London expecting to be “sent to the front" at a moment's notice. But if I had expected early action, nothing could have been further from the truth. We went on parade at 9 an each morning and were immediately dismissed, given leave to "go into town” and be back by evening. I'm not sure that there was even a roll-call to see that we were back in barracks, but one must suppose that there was). It is surprising how soon the delights of the flesh-pots can pall, and after weeks of steadily increasing disinterest the routine became boring and, to a degree, distasteful. At this moment of time, which found me profoundly disillusioned, there occurred one of those events which have a significant effect on one's future.
Out of the blue, totally unexpected, I received a letter from the Colonial Office - an institution now long disbanded, reminding me that during my second year at Oxford I had advised the Appointments Board of my wish to join the Colonial Service after taking my degree, if that august institution considered me a worthy entrant. Apparently it did, or so I was assured at my interview, since I was told that the Government was determined not to repeat the error made in the first World War when, after 4-5 years of suspended recruitment, the Colonial Office found itself drastically short of personnel to replace those of the service who had reached retirement age by the time the Armistice was signed in November 1918. Bored as I was in the period, which came to be known as the "Cold War - active hostilities being down to a minimum following the evacuation of Allied forces from Dunkirk - I was not hard to persuade that I would be of greater benefit to my King and Country in H.M. Colonial Service, while still retaining my commission as an artillery subaltern.
I was posted to the Federated States of Malaya (as Malaysia was then termed) and sailed from the U.K. in the P. & O. liner "Naldera". Being able to "outrun", any enemy submarine, the vessel did not sail in convoy, though we were routed on the South Atlantic route via Cape Town and not through the Mediterranean.
An eye-catching passenger on the vessel was a beautiful Roumanian lady, newly married to the Sultan of one of the Malayan states, with whom she was, naturally enough, travelling. She was the cynosure of all eyes, whether she be lounging in a chair on deck or gracing one of the public rooms of the vessel, and it was rumoured, probably correctly, that she had participated as "Miss Roumania", in a European beauty contest. It would certainly not have been surprising if she had taken top prize In the competition, but this we never knew, nor attempted to find out.
In an informal "briefing" we had received before leaving the U.K. for our respective destinations, we cadets posted to Malaya had been adjured - for our own personal safety - never to make any form of advance, however innocently intended, to the partner of a Malay male. It was therefore to our horror that one afternoon, at a "thé dansant" in the first-class lounge, one of our number, admittedly by far the handsomest of us, rose to his feet without comment, strolled across to the table at which the Sultan and his wife were seated and asked the Sultan if he might have permission to dance with his wife if she herself were agreeable. I thought, for those moments of suspense that followed, that the ship's engines would grind to a halt and we should be marooned for ever in the Indian Ocean.
There was, understandably, a sudden silence in the first-class saloon while speculation was rife as to the likeliest outcome. All was well however; the Sultan graciously inclined his head, his wife rose to her feet and the couple took the floor. I thought to myself at the time that it was just as well that my colleague's posting was to a state other than Johore...
I had accepted the post in the Colonial Service following repeated assurances that the British Government did not intend to repeat the error committed In World War I, when it suspended recruitment for the duration and subsequently found itself with no one to replace those who had reached retirement age or become overdue for home leave while hostilities were still in progress.
It was therefore profoundly disillusioning to be told on reporting for duty that there was a general lack of comprehension regarding my presence, since there was already a superfluity of personnel. I was politely told to betake myself to the "Cadets' Bungalow", install myself there and await further orders.
What course my life would have taken subsequently might probably have been the subject of a dramatic novel or a succinct obituary had it not been that one of the occupants of the Cadets' Bungalow in which I was billeted was a P.W.D. (Public Works' Department) cadet by the name of Foster. Foster (known to the rest of us cadets as 'Fosse"; I never found out what his Christian name was) - had come to the conclusion that he was not making a positive contribution to the "war effort".- He had therefore determined to get on to the equivalent in Malaya of the Empire Air Training Scheme for the production of RAF flying personnel.
I applied to be accepted on the next course but received the answer I expected - that the course was full and I would have to wait and apply for admission to the next. At this point in time, fate intervened dramatically in my favour.
I had recently been routinely required to sit a Chinese exam to assess what linguistic progress I had made after being ported to the Chinese Protectorate section of the Malayan Civil Service. ("Protectorate” was an inappropriate name for this department of the Malayan Civil Service (M.C.S.), if anyone needed "protecting" it was the indigenous Malay population who, but for the continuous vigilance of the Civil Service, would have speedily found themselves bought out, and propertyless as a result of the incomparably superior mercantile prowess of the Chinese immigrants), I was not surprised to be told that I had failed to pass the exam but was duly apprehensive on being informed that I had been sent for by the Governor of the Federated Malay States in Singapore.
I journeyed down to Singapore in trepidation, spent a sleepless night, and presented myself at Government House at the appointed hour the next morning. Having waited in an ante-room for what seemed an age, I was weak-kneed when I was finally summoned into the presence of the Governor, Sir Shenton 'Thomas. He was apparently studying official papers at his desk - or seeming to do so, while he prolonged the agony of what I increasingly felt to be developing into a form of civil court-martial.
At last he looked up, submitted me to a prolonged scrutiny and said "I've sent for you because you are a unique case in the history of the Malayan Civil Service. Not only have you failed your Chinese exam, but you succeeded in scoring nought, not even one, for calligraphy. There has to be a reason."
I summoned up the courage to claim that I felt I had been the victim al a complete misrepresentation of facts. That having been assured at my interview at the Colonial Office in London that the British Government did not intend to repeat the mistaken policy followed during World War 1, (when recruiting for the Colonial Service was suspended for the duration), I was dismayed and utterly disillusioned to be informed, on presenting myself to the head of the Chinese Protectorate in lpoh (in the Federated Malay States) that he was at a loss to know why I had been sent out from the U.K. since his department was already “over establishment”. I told the Governor that I had then been recommended to go back to the Cadets' bungalow and await further advice from the Protectorate office.
I recounted how the days had then gone by without further word from officialdom. I then told him that a fellow Malayan Civil Service cadet In the bungalow, suffering similar frustration, had applied to be admitted to the next R.A.F. training course and had been accepted. The Governor then asked what my intentions were, I told him that I wanted to join the RAF by way of the I.T.W. (Initial Training Wing) at Kallang Airport in Singapore to which my fellow M.C.S. cadet had gone. The Governor immediately reached for his Intercom and asked to be put through at once to the Commanding Officer of the unit.
He received the answer I knew he would get - that the next course was fully booked - and I thought to myself: 'Well, that's that. Now for a long wait". I was wrong, and I listened in disbelief as His Excellency, with great deliberation emphatically spelt out that he "had a prospective cadet who would without question be reporting to attend the next course on the due date.” He spelt out my full names and demanded, firmly but politely that the matter would now be regarded as a firm posting and that I should be reporting for duty on the due date. This was the appointed representative of His Majesty King George VI speaking and whoever was on the other end of the line would indeed have been seriously jeopardizing his future prospects, professionally speaking, if he had dared to demur or say other than: 'Yes, Your Excellency."
So it was that I squeezed into the last ITW/EFTS (Initial Training Wing/Elementary Flying Training-School) course before Singapore fell to the Japanese. I therefore found myself with "Fossie" and other friends from various parts of the Malay Peninsula, excitedly awaiting further developments.
We were stationed at Kallang – Singapore’s first civil airport, and still being used by civil aircraft. It was circular, grass-surfaced, with no defined runways, so that take-offs and landings were undertaken on the basis of a pilot's own estimation of the force and direction of the wind at the time,
"Competition” between the civil aircraft normally using Kallang and the light aircraft (De Havilland Moths and Avro Cadets) used by us trainees was in itself a continuous hazard. The posting of a Brewster "Buffalo" fighter squadron to operate from Kallang increased the potential danger to that of a game of "Russian Roulette" certain ultimately to have a disastrous outcome, of which some of us cadets were horrified witnesses.
Those of us who had done our morning’s stint in the air were sitting one day on the veranda of our "shack' an the perimeter of the airfield, which I stress again was circular and devoid o¡ runways. We had our feet up and were sipping soft drinks ("Sa-tengahs" - Malay for whiskeys and soda - were not recommended until off-duty hours) - when, to our horror, we realized that two aircraft were approaching to land on converging courses. One was a Brewster "Buffalo" fighter, the other a fabric-covered trainer, either a De Havilland "Moth" or an Avro "Cadet". It was too late for any preventive action to be taken, although, with hindsight, one might wonder how the control tower failed to avoid the fatal situation from developing. (On reflection, I appreciate that this is an unfair comment; the circumstances being as they were - a circular airfield with no defined runways - aircraft of all types taking off and landing continuously - it was only a question of time before such an accident occurred.) The two aircraft collided and the instructor and pupil in the training aircraft were both killed outright.
If, at the end of the course, we thought that we should be whisked off to the next stage of our prospective training, we were to be sadly disillusioned, Shortly before the "passing-out" parade - under the circumstances, a rather peremptory occasion, as I recall - the Japanese launched their attacks on Pearl Harbour, the Dutch East Indies, Singapore and the Federated Malay States. As an indication of the unpreparedness of Singapore to resist foreign aggression at that moment of time suffice it to say that the initial Japanese air raids on Singapore before daybreak on December 7, 1942 took place with the street-lighting functioning normally as though nothing were amiss. The story went that the person responsible for urban lighting facilities on Singapore island was "up country" at this vital moment in time and that there was no one else around to order the city street lights and other forms of civic illumination to be switched off... Apocryphal? True? Take your pick... The cynical view taken by us cadets was that there was no one else who knew where the key of the city's street lighting system was kept. Whatever the true facts, the incident was typical of the general feeling that Singapore and the F.X.S. had been 'caught with their pants down".
Having completed our course, we cadets were put on to "general duties", which amounted to becoming "dogsbodies" to carry out any form of manual labour which the current situation required. This normally comprised digging “slit-trenches" and implementing prescribe civil defence measures.
The military situation deteriorated inexorably; the Japanese troops continued their steady advance down the peninsula, taking Talping, Penang, Kuala Lumpur In their stride and using modern military technique which exposed, to a farcical extent, how outdated our traditional training routines had become.
Finally, a general evacuation of Allied non-combatant personnel from Singapore and, indeed, from the Dutch East Indies (now known alter achieving independence as Indonesia) - became inevitable lf they were not to fall into the hands of Japanese invasion forces, We cadets were trucked down to the docks to help In the embarkation of women, children and elderly sale civilians.
The vessel on which they were to travel was a United States troop carrier, launched as the s.s. "AMERICA' to serve as a luxury liner and taken over by the U.S. Armed Services as she rolled down the stocks and renamed “WEST POINT".
We cadets expected to leave the docks and return to digging slit-trenches but were staggered to be told that we had an hour at most to get packed and embark on the vessel, destination undisclosed. From Singapore we steamed alone - no need to go in any convoy as the "WEST POINT", taking continuous evasive action, was far too fast for any U-boat to hope to intercept. Routed via the Dutch East Indies, we then sailed to South Africa via Colombo to Cape Town where we disembarked.
Previous courses of Kallang air cadets had gone to Iraq, South Africa or Canada for Advanced Flying Training. We landed at Durban and were sent up by train to Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). It had virtually been decided in Malaya which of us would thereafter convert to multi-engined aircraft (principally bombers and transport planes) and who would train to become pilots of single-engine fighters and reconnaissance aircraft.
I was posted to an RAR Advanced Training unit at Thornhill, near the town of Gwelo, between Bulawayo and Salisbury (since renamed Harare), to train en Harvard aircraft. At that time the Mark I Harvard was in the process of being replaced by the safer, metal-fuselaged Mark II Harvard, which could more easily be persuaded to come out of a spin than its older counterpart.
Aerobatics and recovery from spins formed an important part o¡ cur training and theoretically these manoeuvres were restricted to the Mark II Harvard, following a number of fatal accidents involving the Mark I model. When my turn came to take my 'Passing Out" flying test I found myself allotted a Mark I Harvard and answerable to a seasoned RAF instructor not particularly known for being a stickler f or what he obviously regarded as needless and obstructive "red tape". He asked me to carry out the usual routine elementary manoeuvres, which I apparently performed satisfactorily, and then told me to climb to the customary altitude for aerobatics and carry out a "loop", a "slow roll", a "roll off the top” (of a "Ioop")' and a "stall turn", all of which I managed to do to the best of my ability. Then, to my horror, he asked me to climb again to aerobatic-altitude and do a “flick roll". The aerobatics which the Harvard Mark I was permitted to perform - at least by our "rule-book"- definitely excluded this particular manoeuvre.
The situation called for some quick-thinking on my part: "Do I remind my instructor that the manoeuvre he has asked me to carry out is not recommended in the case of the Mark I Harvard?”, I asked myself mentally, And, quick as a flash, back came the answer: "Do that and you’ll find yourself off the course and back in a transit-camp". So I wisely held my tongue and performed the "flick roll", fortunately without the aircraft breaking up.
After completing the course at Thornhill in Southern Rhodesia we were ready to be posted to a Conversion Unit to fit us later for flying the type of aircraft in use on squadrons to which we were likely to be posted.
It transpired that, for the majority of us, the theatre of war in which we would next be directly involved would be the Middle East. For my part, after converting on to "Hurricane" fighters, I found myself posted to 208 Squadron, a pioneer RAF squadron which originated from the World War I No.8 Squadron RNAS (Royal Naval Air Service), popularly known in its day as "Naval Eight".
208 Squadron was a fighter reconnaissance squadron - based in peacetime at Heliopolis airfield on the outskirts of Cairo - which performed a more tactical r8le than the higher flying P.R.U, (Photographic Reconnaissance Unit) aircraft that carried no armament (considered superfluous in an aircraft which could fly at an altitude and speed beyond the reach of the average enemy fighter). Some of our squadron’s aircraft were fitted with cameras, to take either vertical "line overlap" photographs over a continuous stretch of topography, or oblique photographs in the form of a panoramic sequence.
Interpretation of aerial photographs being a highly specialized art we had on the squadron an Army Liaison Officer (A.L.O.) specially trained for the purpose. I spent quite a lot of time watching him at work when we were on standby and not In operational service. He called me into his caravan-laboratory one day and showed me some "line overlaps" of Palmyra that I had been briefed to take the day before as a practice exercise. To my amazement, the photographs showed the foundations of building and the course of streets that today are invisible to a person on the ground - I speak from experience, having been by lorry to the site across the desert on a squadron "excursion" when off duty.
The foundations and "city streets" have, over past centuries, been covered by sand, except where experienced archaeologists have, with the greatest possible care, painstakingly brushed the sand away to reveal these unique relics of a past civilization. The visit to Palmyra was an unforgettable experience, enhanced as it was by the comments and explanations of the experts who accompanied us.
Before finally going on "ops" (operational duties) we were based, either by flights or as a squadron, in Egypt, the Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Iran, where we combined intensive training with savouring the local fleshpots, At times we were called upon to perform what amounted to propaganda operations; l recall vividly one particular exercise which might have bordered on the ludicrous, but, in the event, proved to be a tactical, possibly strategical, success.
The powers that be decided that, as the 25th anniversary of the formal inauguration of the Royal Air Force - offspring of the original Royal Flying Corps - would fall due in April, 1943, ¡t would be appropriate to the occasion for a "fly-past" by a selection of RAF aircraft available in the area.
lf this had been restricted to one, two or even three different types of RAF service aircraft flying in separate formations, the operation would have been accomplished without any complications arising. As it happened, it was decided that an obsolescent twin-engined "Blenheim" would lead the "parade" in a "Vic" (a Y-shaped formation) with our Hawker "Hurricanes" comprising the two "legs". The "Blenheim" was considerably slower than the "Hurricane", but even so, its pilot probably thought he would be helping if he flew at a reduced speed with his engines throttled back.
As he led us into a sedate turn, on which I was on the inside, and consequently flying slowest, or throttled back, I realized that we would not complete the manoeuvre without my aircraft stalling. The only - safe - course of action, I reasoned, was for me to detach myself from the proceedings before I "spun off" and to do a minor "show" on my own, as if that were all part of the act. So I "peeled off" from the other aircraft, did a "slow roll" and two or three "beat-ups" (mock ground-attacks) and flew back to our airfield. I waited In fear and dread for the "bollocking" I expected to receive from our Commanding Officer, but to my great surprise - and relief - he chose to adopt a lenient attitude and merely reprimanded me for what be drolly termed "trying to steal the show". I doubt whether the citizens of Baghdad were any more impressed...
The war had reached the stage when the outcome was inevitable-, the Axis forces had lost the battle in the Western Desert and North Africa, and the focus was now on the European mainland. For us, this meant a move first to Crotone in Sicily, and from there to a metal air-strip at Vasto on the Adriatic coast between Termoli and Pescara.
Our rôle as a 'Tac/R' (viz. Tactical Reconnaissance) squadron was to fly north up the coast and try and locate "fleeting opportunity" targets for fighter-bomber squadrons to destroy and also to range artillery units on to targets previously spotted and accurately pin-pointed on earlier reconnaissance flights.
Allied superiority during the advance up the Italian mainland - Sicily having been overrun after a fierce campaign - was such that the Axis forces tended, when and where possible, to move ground transport only at night. The vast majority of squadron sorties were therefore purely routine affairs with very little to report at 'debriefing". For the most part they were carried cut by two aircraft, one o¡ which undertook the reconnaissance mission, while the other - known as a "weaver" - kept a look-out for enemy aircraft from a position behind and above the "spotter" aircraft.
Both aircraft endeavoured to avoid flying on a "straight and level" course so as not to give the enemy "flak' the necessary opportunity to calculate the height and range o¡ their target.
My failure to comply with this routine practice led, literally, to ay downfall. The fatal lapse occurred when, wonder of wonders, I suddenly spotted a convoy of enemy lorries making its way along the coast road. In my eagerness to radio back to Squadron H,Q. details of the potential target, with relevant map-reference, I flew straight and level just long enough to be caught by the first 'box' of ¡cur shells fro-m an enemy anti-aircraft battery.
Shell splinters had pierced the "header" tank of my aircraft, so that glycol (engine coolant liquid) was streaming back on to the windscreen, and the engine temperature was rising dramatically, the aileron on the starboard wing had also been damaged to the extent that keeping the aircraft in level flight was virtually impossible. It was obviously time to part company with my "Spit', and consign my immediate future to my parachute.
I never heard of any practical parachute instruction being given to RAF aircrew. One was told to "bale out" on the "inside" of a spin, but when confronted by "the moment of truth" I was more concerned with parting company with my aircraft as fast as possible than performing the operation strictly according to the book", That I survived the experience was a miracle for which I have ever since thanked my Maker. Today, well over half a century later, I still have the odd bad moment in the middle of the night recalling the "whoosh" as the tail of my stricken "Spitfire" sliced through the air past my head.
The opening of my parachute knocked all the wind out of my lungs; the fact that I had not tightened the straps before take-off to fit my physique (we did not have individual chutes of our own, but- used to grab the nearest to hand before taking off) was the principal cause of this added misfortune. Having got my breath back, I had plenty of time to take stock of my situation. Once I had stopped oscillating and swinging from side to side and had settled into a sedate descent I became aware of two phenomena ; first, complete silence, until relatively near ground level when the characteristic noises of the farmyard into which I was obviously going to be dumped became increasingly audible and second, the seeming anomaly that blood from wounds in my right leg was falling to earth faster than I was. There has to be some physical explanation for this, but Physics had not been a subject at which I had excelled at school. lf there was any way in which I could cause a Bunsen burner to malfunction or an experiment, fastidiously prepared in advance by our Science master, to 'go off the rails", I would find it, not deliberately, but coincidentally and unfailingly. Consequently, and quite understandably, I was not the most popular member of the class with our Science master...
But to return to the drama of being shot down - I landed all wrong "according to the book”, but, thanks to my Guardian Angel being on duty at that particular moment, my descent by parachute was successfully accomplished without my sustaining further physical damage.
What transpired then could speak volumes for the comparative merits of the Italian male and female. The womenfolk on that farm were determined to hide me from the Germans in a hayloft or same similar "safe haven". The farmer, however, and the few male farmhands present (presumably exempt from more strenuous war service), were equally vociferous in their opposition to such a course of action. A furious row broke cut between the two sexes and it was quite obvious that neither side was prepared to give way. I tried to make it clear, mainly by gestures and sign language, that the Germans would have seen me floating down out of the sky, that it was only a question of minutes before they arrived at the farm, and the consequences would be catastrophic for the farmer, his wife and family and the farmhands if I were finally located hiding on the premises.
Common sense prevailed in the end, and when the German patrol arrived I was loaded on to a small farm-wagon, after a field-dressing had been applied, and we made our way to the location of the German "flak" unit which had shot me down. The immediate destination there was the Officers' Mess where, not surprisingly, a rowdy party was already under way. It was there that I really came to understand the significance of the term "comradeship in arms”. I was received as if I had been one of the gun-crew responsible for shooting me down. Plentifully plied with Schnapps, I was soon sore from the back-slapping to which I was submitted until the unit's M.O. (Medical Officer) intervened to insist on carrying out a more appropriate form of first aid.
In that German Wehrmacht Officers' Mess I first heard the phrase, spoken, I seemed to detect, in a wistful tone: "Für Sie das Krieg ist vertig" ("For you the war is over"). I was to hear it many times before finally reaching the Prisoner of War camp at Lückenwalde.
At an adjacent field hospital ("Lazarett"?), two jagged pieces of the "flak" shell which had brought me down were prized out of my right leg and presented to me as "souvenirs" by a nursing orderly. The rest of the medical staff in attendance were by then busily occupied reviving a pretty Italian nurse who had fainted during the proceedings. I thought to myself, wryly: "Just as well I'm not bleeding to death..."
From the field hospital I was transferred to a single-door nursing home, still out in the country, which I guessed had probably been an infirmary for consumptive patients In peacetime, There was no question of "segregation"; the ward contained Germans as well as a few Allied casualties. I shall always remember two of the latter: one, a cockney RASC (Royal Army Service Corps) driver, never at a loss for a laconic comment appropriate to the occasion; the other, a Ghurkha, who, having had to have a leg amputated, a deprivation to which he never adjusted, ultimately and literally "turned his face to the wall" and quietly died, to the distress of us few all Allied personnel in the ward.
There are two anecdotes to be told regarding this particular "Johnny Ghurkha" which are also illustrative of the "rapport" between military personnel, not necessarily all on the same side. When the condition of wounded Allied P.O.W.s permitted, they were progressively moved north up the Italian peninsular. For various reasons, this could not be accomplished in one single, uninterrupted operation. One of the "staging posts" in which this Ghurkha soldier and I coincided on the Journey north into Germany was a large building in Florence which was being used to accommodate both Axis and Allied casualties. For all I know, it might in fact have been a peacetime hospital, though, with hindsight, I discount this if only because there did not appear to be a single bed in the place; we were all, Allied and Axis personnel alike, or so it appeared, lying on straw-filled palliasses on the floor. One day the "hospital" was visited by an Italian charitable organization (I cannot believe, in view of what followed, that the Red Cross was in any way involved) distributing sweets and "comforts" to the patients. An appropriate “ration" was dropped on my palliasse and the beneficent party passed en to the next patient, the little Ghurkha. The Lady Bountiful started to dispense packets of sweets to him when suddenly an Italian hospital official leaned forward and spoke to her "sotto voce". Clearly, what he said to her caused her to scoop up what she had dropped on the Ghurkha’s "bed" before continuing on her “compassionate mission".
I shall never forget what followed. First one Axis patient, then another, then another, started to toss on to the Ghurkha’s palliasse part of what each had for no more. I thought to myself- "So much for Adolf Hitler's proselytising about Aryan supremacy and the superiority of "whites" over "coloureds". There's hope for a decent, equitable world yet." Pompous hyperbole? Perhaps, but I believe I was thinking along the right lines.
The second anecdotal incident occurred in Assisi, in what I thought was probably in peacetime a nursing home - for consumptive patients perhaps? Or so it seemed at the time. It was, In my case, a staging post for wounded Allied P.O.W.s on the way up to a P.O.W. camp In Germany, but obviously its primary purpose was to accommodate wounded Axis military personnel. The latter were predominantly casualties from the fierce fighting around Cassino, the fall of which was to be the prelude to the decisive Allied advance up the Italian peninsula. I had grave doubts about how they, having been "strafed" from the air, would react to sharing the ward with an R.A.F. 'Spitfire' pilot. In the event, however, my initial anxiety proved to be entirely unfounded: they all seemed to accept their plight philosophically. For them, as for me, "der Krieg ist vertig" ("the war is over") was all that concerned them and none appeared to have any regrets about their situation.
The incident again involved the wounded Ghurkha, who, by now had tragically had to have a leg amputated because of the onset of gangrene. His morale dropped progressively as the days went by, and he lay impassively on his palliasse. He spoke no English, though a fellow English P.O.W, and I did our best to communicate with him and to let him know that we felt for him.
One of the Italian non-medical staff employed in keeping the ward clean obviously found the little Ghurkha a source of malicious amusement and never passed his "bed" without sniggering. One morning, though, he could not restrain himself from stopping at the end of the Ghurkha’s palliasse and sneering at him derisively. We few bed-ridden Allied patients protested loudly, but our reaction was as nothing compared with that of a German nursing orderly who happened to be passing through the ward at the time and who laid the Italian out with a fulminating right hack. With typical Teutonic impassiveness, he thereupon left the ward, expressionless, looking neither to right nor left. Unfortunately, our little Ghurkha fellow-patient became increasingly depressed and one day literally "turned his face to the wall" and died, to our deep regret and sorrow.
I also remember vividly a dive-bombing attack on a target in the vicinity by Allied aircraft, one of which, to our horror, failed to pull out of its dive and, lost to our view behind a hillock, exploded on hitting the ground. We saw no sign of a descending parachute, so, sadly, it had to be assumed that the pilot had been killed in the crash, if not earlier.
In due course I was judged fit to travel, and thereafter spent anxious hours travelling up Italy by lorry and train, through the Brenner Pass into Austria and finally Germany. I say “anxious hours" with feeling, as all forms of transport (with the exception of clearly identifiable ambulances and Red Cross vehicles) on the route we followed were "fair game" for Allied aircraft set an wreaking destruction throughout enemy territory.
I recall passing an anxious hour or so in the Main Hall of the railway station In Stuttgart, in full view of scurrying German civilians, coming and going on their immediate business, and wondering whether the two German guards escorting me to our destination would be willing and able to defend me from the local population should the latter decide to wreak vengeance on me for the devastation inflicted on them by a force of which I was all too obviously representative. Fortunately, although there was no doubt as to the role I was playing in this particular scenario, the civilian population were committedly intent on pursuing their routine activities rather than losing valuable time as spectators of what must have been an unusual event in their everyday lives.
If there were moments of anxiety for me in Stuttgart railway station it was difficult to feel comfortable for a second throughout the subsequent journey by lorry to an interrogation centre at Frankfurt-am-Main, during which one of the guards - arguably more nervous than myself - kept his machine-pistol continuously aimed at my midriff.
The time I spent at Frankfurt was distinctly unpleasant. There was no question of my being allowed to appeal to the International Red Cross on the grounds that I was not being treated humanely. Access to such a body was definitely not available to Allied P.O.W.s, at least while they were in a state to survive interrogation. The procedure was standard; for all I know it may have been practised by Allied interrogators of Axis P.O.W.s.
One was kept alone in a small room and virtually forgotten except for the provision of Spartan meals, which generally consisted of a soup or stew, with a hunk of black bread, a piece of cheese, a small square of a white, practically flavourless margarine (reputedly made from coal, though I never came across anyone who could positively confirm this) and, from time to time, an unidentifiable jam. Water was never withheld.
The psychological and physiological effects were devastating. Not being allowed to cleanse one's body with a quantity of static, let alone running, water, day after day is a proven way of breaking down a person's morale. In my own case, the circumstances were indescribably worsened by the fact that in Italy I had been issued with lice-ridden clothing. Nevertheless, notwithstanding a progressively drooping morale, I lasted out this depressing period without divulging more than the basic details we were briefed to disclose in such circumstances. My interrogators finally decided that their time and energies could be more productively employed and, after a thorough physical cleansing (brain-washing having proved impractical), I left Frankfurt for the prisoner of war camp at Luckenwalde in Silesia.
If I thought I would be sympathetically received there I was in for a surprising shock. Once inside the P.O.W. compound I found myself directed to an office in one of the blocks and facing three grim-faced RAF officers seated behind a long table. I realized with no little surprise that I was in for yet another interrogation, this time by my own countrymen! Alter it was all over and I had apparently "passed the test", it was made clear that I had had to undergo the interrogation because the Germans had a habit of trying to "smuggle" into Allied P.O.W. camps supposedly Allied personnel, but in reality fluent English-speaking Axis agents, for the purpose of reporting to the camp authorities any "illicit" activities which the inmates might be perpetrating or contemplating. As my squadron had only recently taken over operational duties from another fighter reconnaissance unit in the particular battle zone, and I was the first of the squadron to be shot down and captured in the new situation, there was no one in the camp who could vouch for my authentic identity and endorse my credentials.
The interrogation "misfired" because, having stated that prior to the declaration of war I had lived in St John’s Wood (N.W.8 in the London postal code at that tine), I was able - to the obvious discomfiture of those of my interrogators who claimed to have a profound knowledge of London - to inform them that, contrary to their unanimous belief, of the two railway stations in the area, Marylebone was nearer to Madame Tussaud's Waxworks Museum than was Paddington. Further questioning came to an embarrassed halt and I was formally "admitted" into the camp as a bona fide Allied P.O.W.
Adjusting to the situation of being a prisoner of war was a process of successive and varying phases. The fact of finding oneself alive, if not exactly "all in one piece", after being shot down took priority over other emotions in the initial phase. Relief at having survived what can only be describe as an horrific experience was natural enough In the circumstances; doubt, recrimination, frustration, self-criticism (why had I ‘stupidly’ relaxed my vigilance in a crucial situation?) were to follow - and remain with me, possibly for ever.
To give them due credit, the German military authorities seen to have generally behaved with traditional Teutonic correctness insofar as they were in control of any situation. The snags arose when intervention by the Gestapo occurred. In my experience and from what fellow P.O.W.s were able to corroborate, interference by the Gestapo in matters involving treatment or interrogation of Allied personnel was a practice which their military colleagues repudiated, but were powerless to prevent without serious risk to their own well-being. When circumstances permitted however, and I speak from my own experience throughout captivity, members of the German Armed Forces could be comprehensively explicit in expressing their resentment at Gestapo incursions into what the former regarded as being their exclusive preserve.
The novelty of finding myself in a camp run by the enemy and being so suddenly removed, supposedly, from exposure to bodily harm - or worse - in a more active participation in the hostilities, plus being reunited with my own countrymen and in the company of a hast of Commonwealth and other allied personnel was indescribable. It was, in fact, the initiation of another era in my life.
I suppose every prisoner of war goes through the same phases. The first has to be, understandably, relief at saving survived to that point of time in which he finds himself. The second, assuming that the individual in such circumstances Is physically capable of embarking upon arduous enterprises, is planning and accomplishing his escape. But if I thought that escaping from the P.O.W. camp at Luckenwalde was to be an enterprise conducted exclusively on my own initiative I was soon to be informed otherwise, in no uncertain fashion.
Because the failure of an attempted escape operation could seriously jeopardize the success of similar enterprises in the future, and notwithstanding the axiom that it was a POW’s duty to try to escape, there existed in the camp an "escape committee", presided over by the SBO (Senior British Officer) to which any escape project needed to be submitted for approval before ¡t could be put into operation.
It was shortly before my incarceration that there had occurred an atrocity which shocked the civilised world, when it became known, and for which its Gestapo perpetrators were justly brought to trial, found guilty and duly executed following the defeat of the Axis powers in 1945.
In a typical P.O.W. camp were to be found members of an astonishingly wide and varied range of professions, particularly among RAFVR (Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve) personnel who, in peacetime, primarily pursued a civilian livelihood and only (an inadequate word in this context) actively trained for flying and/or other duties in their "spare time", viz., weekends and a limited period during their summer and other seasonal holiday periods. Thus, in that environment one "rubbed shoulders", if not with tinkers, certainly with tailors - and having said that, I an not entirely sure that we might not also have had the odd (amateur) tinker among us, after all.
Thus, escaping from a German P.O.W. camp for Allied personnel was, generally speaking, and excepting the odd "maverick" sortie, an operation which needed to be carefully planned with profound study and consideration and finally approved by the "Escape Committee".
Once an escape project had been approved, the committee virtually "stage-managed" the operation thereafter to ensure that it should proceed smoothly and successfully, and in the utmost secrecy. The necessary "props" - civilian clothes, documents, etc. - were prepared or procured, and in this latter regard it is interesting to note that not a few German guards were suborned or bribed into providing essential items by accepting “gifts" from British and American Red Cross parcels containing foodstuffs and apparel which had long been unavailable, or were in the shortest supply, in the German domestic market. Needless to say, once a German guard or camp official became a party to this two-way trafficking al desired commodities or articles, he found himself in an inescapably compromising situation which would almost certainly have threatened his personal well-being had it become known to his immediate superiors.
The escape operation in question was from one of the Stalag Luft III compounds and required the construction of a tunnel initiating beneath the floorboards of one of the camp huts and surfacing beyond the barbed wire perimeter fence of the camp.
Tunnelling was master-minded by an R.C.A.F. (Royal Canadian Air Force) P.O.W., skilled In mining engineering prior to volunteering for flying duties In the E.T.O. (European Theatre of Operations). I never saw the tunnel, but I was told that it was a professional masterpiece, being lined throughout with flattened-out KLIX (dried milk powder) tins and equipped with a primitive but 100% effective ventilation system, operated by hand-held "bellows".
To those who are not professional "tunnellers" in civilian life it may not be immediately apparent that, to make forward progress, the tunneller has to have the means of disposing of excavated material. In the case of this particular operation, the clay, sand or soil so produced was packed into bags of such a size as to fit unobtrusively inside an individual's trousers. The filled bags were then assigned to those taking their "constitutional” walks round the inside perimeter of the camp, and a small slit in the bottom of a bag ensured that its contents could be unobtrusively loosed down the trouser leg in the course of the exercise.
In the event, in one sole sortie some 80 POWs made their escape through the tunnel and into the German countryside. Pathetically few succeeded in reaching Allied-held territory, and at least 50 of those recaptured were summarily executed by the Gestapo, who must have panicked when they realized the full extent of the operation. Not a few of the Germans with whom we were in dally contact in the camp made it clearly obvious that they too were as appalled as we were by this barbaric "reprisal" on the part of the Gestapo, (of whom Wehrmacht personnel clearly had a barely concealed dislike and distrust)… I believe that the German Camp Commandant went so far as to make it known to the S.B.O. that neither he (the Camp Commandant) nor those under his immediate command were parties to the atrocity. A stiff-necked, Teutonic, authoritarian, military man of the old school, he was quite obviously out of place in the Nazi context, in which strict adherence to correct military procedures so often took second place to the ruthless expediency favoured by the Gestapo.
Be that as it may, a temporary halt was called to escape activities pending consideration of the situation In the light of recent events and the issuing of an official directive by the S.B.O.
I made reference earlier herein to the proliferation of professions and "civvy street" activities to be found in a P.O.W. camp occupied by R.A.F. personnel. This is not surprising when comparison is made between the number of pre-war "regular" R.A.F. personnel and those comprising the "volunteer reserve" (R.A.F.V.R.), the latter being civilians whose R.A.F. training (whether for flying or ground duties) had taken place in their "spare time" at weekends or in other holiday periods.
It is not surprising therefore that there was rarely difficulty In a P.O.W. camp In locating individuals whose skill In sane particular peacetime profession or activity would prove invaluable, even indispensable, In ensuring the success of an escape attempt. Their talent might be In tailoring, calligraphy, forgery, metallurgy, carpentry or whatever. lf, however, there ware a need for some specific tool, implement or object from the outside world, the cooperation of' a "goon" (a German guard in P.O.W. parlance) in its procurement. could always be ensured by insinuating that his acceptance on an earlier occasion of a milk chocolate bar (available, if at all, only in "ersatz" form in the German civilian market) from an Allied Red Cross fund parcel might be "leaked" to his superiors in the event of his non-compliance.
The tailors in Stalag Luft III really came into their own when costumes were needed for the impressive theatrical shows presented from time to time by those P.O.W.s with pre-war professional and/or amateur stage experience, and these were not a few. It is understandable therefore that, until requested for a specific production, civilian clothes "props" were retained by the Germans 'in safe keeping'. This is not to say, though, that the "Escape Committee" lacked the means of procuring civilian clothing whenever required for an escape attempt. What their "means" were it were better not to have asked; not that the question would ever have been answered. (It is perhaps interesting for the record that, language difference notwithstanding, there was never any shortage - quite the contrary - of German officers attending the professional-standard concerts and plays presented by those in their custody.)