A massive thank you to Chester for generously sharing his memoirs!
These are memories of events that occurred over 70 years ago, now recalled by a 94 year-old man. I hope they are accurate.
I was called up in July 1943, aged 19 years and one month.
I did my initial training at Skegness, spent three weeks at RAF Costal Command Operational Training Unit at Withybush, near Haverfordwest, and eighteen weeks at RAF Cosford on the sixteen week Flight Mechanic Engines (FME) course.
3006180, AC2, Guttridge, C. arrived initially at Ely railway station on 16 March 1944 or thereabouts. The date of arrival was not necessarily the same as the official transfer date which did not recognise intervening periods of leave.
A RAF lorry picked me and other airmen up and took us to Mepal, passing near Witchford, Waterbeach’s other satellite station, and dropped us at the guard house, manned by RAF police.
The ‘red caps’ were not our mates and kept to themselves. They represented discipline and were issued with arms. In the last resort they were there to defend us. When a German plane dropped anti personnel bombs on the airfield they disposed of them. Until cleared the airfield was out of bounds for the rest of us. I heard of no one killed or injured. Half a days flying was lost.
RAF Mepal was a satellite bomber station of Waterbeach, near Cambridge, that first operated in 1943. It was built mostly of Nissen huts, large, medium and small.
The wash houses and ablution blocks were of brick with asbestos cement roofs. Near the NAFFI Nissen hut stood a brick and asbestos toilet building with rarely used cubicle seating for some 24 airman at a time. I used it occasionally, only once hearing another flush.
The education hut was a little further away beside the concrete road to the airfield. I was often to be found there when work was done.
I must have been issued on arrival with a bicycle, three blankets and a pillow and directed to the Nissen hut that was to be my billet. I found an unused bed, inevitably near the door, but gradually worked my way up towards the central stove as airmen left on postings. A chap who specialized in long fruity farts which he announced to all when an eruption was imminent, fortunately slept at the other end. He had been a cowman and was at the lower end of our limited cultural range.
Formalities were minimal, we were there to do a job. I remember only one kit inspection, although we unmade our beds every morning just in case. I acquired a large soft blanket, which I folded to serve as top and bottom sheets. I never traded it in for clean blankets as required every few months. All our clothes were marked with our RAF number. Laundry was collected once a week. I once sent a rag that I had been using and got back a handkerchief.
Next day I was drafted to a ‘wing’ of four aircraft and to a small corrugated iron ‘dispersal’ hut near a Lancaster bomber. It was to be my work place until 75 NZ Squadron left Mepal.
For most of my time at Mepal, I and my colleagues serviced aircraft S Sugar of “B” Flight, 75(N.Z.) Squadron.
There were five of us: Corporal Jim Cooper, engine mechanic; Max Barnes, engine mechanic (known as Binnie after the film star Binnie Barnes); bespectacled Corporal Shufflebottom, airframe rigger; Stan Hankins, airframe rigger, also bespectacled, and me.
Binnie was in the same billet as me, eventually in the next bed. I got to know him well.
All four colleagues had been in the RAF longer than me and knew the ropes.
Jim Cooper had been a postman in Sheffield before call-up and Stan a house decorator in his father’s business in Hove. Binnie hailed from Ormskirk. I also became friendly with Corporal Alec Balfour from Aberdeen. Alec and I had a week’s holiday together in the Lake District after the war. Again after the war, I stayed for a weekend with Jim Cooper and his wife, Enid, in his terraced house in Sheffield, the smoky city of steel. I was appalled by the black smuts floating in the air and the grime everywhere, even in the park where we went for a walk on Sunday afternoon with seemingly half the population seeking greenery and fresh(er) air. Many years later Max came to stay with us at Nailsea, but by then he had a heart condition and died a few months later. Things did not go well for him after the war. Although his pre-war employer took him back as required, they sent him to work away from home, a circumstance that led to him divorcing his wife and selling the family home.
Some colleagues in the billet had seen service in Africa, either in the E. African pilot training stations, or in the Libyan desert. One had lived in a tent in N. Africa and had jumped on to a lorry, leaving everything behind, even his toolbox, as German forces threatened to overtake the airstrip. Those from E. Africa were yellow from quinine that had protected them from malaria. The colouration faded over a period of months. The day I arrived at the flight hut, the Avro Lancaster on our concrete standing ground and the three others in the flight area were all new. Ours had arrived the day before me, after the Stirling bombers had flown out. Records show that the first Lancaster arrived at Mepal on 13 March 1944. I suppose my colleagues on the flight had received some instruction on servicing the new planes. The Stirlings had four radial engines, the Lancaster’s four in-line Rolls Royce Merlins.
Sergeant Burkitt, an engine man, was in charge of all four planes and their ground crews. He was a regular, having joined the Service before the war. Above him was the Engineering Officer with the rank of a Flying Officer, one step above the lowest ranking Pilot Officer. Few of the ground staff that I met were New Zealanders. Sergeant Burkitt’s number two mechanic suffered with dermatitis caused by engine oil so was discharged.
Our jobs were to carry out daily inspections of engines and airframe and do minor servicing operations, then sign a chart recording completion.
Stan and his corporal checked that the control surfaces, rudder, ailerons, etc were working properly and that the outer skin of the aircraft was undamaged, patching it if necessary with dope and canvas. Stan cleaned the inside.
Having made visual inspections, we mechanics ‘ran up’ the engines, one at a time, to check their operation and that of the variable pitch propellers. While I was at Mepal, airscrews were renamed propellers (props.) to avoid confusion with aircrews.
It was some months before I was allowed to ‘run up’ the engines. I liked having so much power (c.1500 hp.) at my control. We checked the performance mainly by checking the rev. (revolution) counter and, of course, the oil pressure and temperature gauges. Merlin engines were fitted with two independent magneto ignition systems, a) in case one should fail and b) to improve engine performance. Two sparks ignited the petrol-air mixture in the cylinders faster than one, thus increasing power output. By observing the drop in revs when one ignition set was switched off one could tell if there was a faulty plug. In which case we changed all 24 plugs and tested the engine again.
Specialists dealt with the guns, the radio, the H2S (ground mapping radar), electrical systems, hydraulics and the automatic pilot. From time to time specialists ‘swung’ the aircraft to determine the deviation of the compass caused by magnetic metal on the plane, presumably mainly the engines.
When Mepal was scheduled for a raid, armourers hung bombs in the bomb bay and loaded the Browning machine guns with ammunition while we filled the tanks with the specified quantity of petrol. To do this we had to climb on to the wings.
Before take-off time, which was usually in the evenings around dusk, one of us ground crew, as detailed, had to remove the cover from the pitot head (air speed indicator), remove the canvas engine covers, then, when all was ready and the air crew aboard, climb on to the wheels in the undercarriage nacelles, pump priming petrol into the engines, while the flight engineer (second pilot) in the cockpit pressed the starter buttons.
Finally, upon a signal from the pilot, we removed the chocks and guided the plane from its standing ground by hand signals. We had to remain on the station until called by Tannoy to receive our returning plane.
The Station’s Commanding Officer visited every crew in his camouflaged Austin Eight as they waited to board.
The planes lined up on the perimeter track waiting their turn to take off, loaded with petrol for up to a 10 hour flight. Flights were, as I recall, mostly of five to seven hours. With four engines on full power they struggled to take off, the heavy, low pitched drone continued for perhaps half an hour before they were all away. Silence fell over the fens when the last of the planes disappeared into the distance to cross the North Sea.
Upon our plane’s return we guided it into its place with hand signals (holding torches in darkness), put chocks against the wheels, covered the four engines by again walking on the wings, then lacing them up underneath. The whole operation took some 30 – 40 minutes. We went inside to check that the crew had left everything switched off and safe, gathered up any sweets they had left, jumped out, locked the door and cycled back to our huts, perhaps stopping at the mess for a mug of hot cocoa. If late getting to bed, we were allowed to sleep in until lunchtime next day.
We were glad to see our plane back and its crew safe.
We lost two aircraft over the 15 months I was with 75 NZ Squadron at Mepal, hoping the crews had managed to bale out or had crash landed safely somewhere else, but we never heard. Had their bombs that night fallen on some German factory or marshalling yard or killed civilians in their beds, we never knew. Accuracy was hard to achieve in high-level bombing. Night bombing was dangerous and aircraft losses were heavy. The crews were being shot at two or three times a week or more and many lost their lives. I was at risk only of falling off the wing or walking under a spinning propeller.
Next morning there was much to be done. All the engines had to be inspected, the sides and top cowlings removed, and the engines examined for cracks, damage, oil leaks and oil levels. When all was checked the engines were run up for rev. tests. These jobs took all morning, usually into the afternoon. Corporal Cooper once spotted a small crack about half an inch long on an engine casing that I had missed. The plane was towed by a David Brown tractor to the servicing hanger for fitters to change the engine. It was there that engines underwent major service after the specified number of flying hours.
When he got a chance, Hankins painted another yellow bomb symbol on the fuselage just below and forward of the cockpit, one for every raid.
Sometimes our plane dropped ‘Windows’ as well as bombs. Windows were strips of ‘silver’ lined paper varying in size from about 8 inches x ½ inch to 18 inches x two inches (as I recall), which, when floating down from the aircraft, were said to have confused enemy radar. Members of the crew dropped it through a hatch fitted for the purpose. I’m told, although I don’t remember it.
The largest bomb our plane carried was a 4,000 pound blockbuster. After being fitted with modification bomb doors, Sergeant Burkitt’s plane was loaded with an 8,000 pounder on a couple of occasions. Usually our planes were loaded with 500 or 1,000 pound bombs and/or incendiaries.
After the Normandy landings our planes went on short daytime tactical raids over France, in support of the army. Aircrews never spoke of their operations and we ground crews never asked. I read on the web that 75 (N.Z.) squadron has an impressive reputation for its contribution to the bombing campaign, operating more sorties than any squadron in Group 3, I understand.
S Sugar, M Mother and W Willie (our planes during my period of service with 75 NZ Squadron) sometimes flew on training flights of one sort or another. If a novice pilot had made a bumpy landing, he would be ordered to do a few ‘circuits and bumps’, maybe half a dozen until his skill satisfied the flying control officer of the day. Ground crews were encouraged to join such trips although we tried to avoid circuits and bumps which we saw as more hazardous and less interesting than cross country flights. But one day, having been misinformed, I went on one. I sat in the rear gunner’s turret, closed the doors behind me and swivelled around, aiming the unarmed Browning machine guns at imaginary targets. A rear gunner would be cooped up in his turret perhaps for eight more hours on a long flight.
The flight hut was our shelter in rain and a focus for a little social life. A small coke stove made it cosy in cold weather except by the doorless opening. When WAAF drivers called to deliver items or to bring news, they were invited in for a gossip. Airman from nearby huts called, but not often. Some aircrews came to chat with us during daytime or watch us carrying out the service checks. When the NAFFI van called at the flight area mid mornings and afternoons we took our mugs over for ‘tea and a wad’ – the wad being a rectangle of cake costing a couple of pence or so.
The flight ‘Elson’ toilet in its little hut was indescribably filthy, seat and container, never cleaned. I lined the seat with toilet paper when necessity overrode disgust. Now and again a team of civilians tipped the contents into a larger container which they humped on their backs and emptied into an even filthier container on a lorry. We urinated behind the hut, where we also washed our overalls in high octane leaded aviation fuel. They dried in the wind a slightly grey colour from the lead in the petrol.
One day I and five colleagues were called upon to guard a crashed Lancaster on the fens overnight. We were issued with rifles and ammunition. The night was uneventful. Otherwise fatigues were rare. I once scoured roasting tins in the cook house and on another occasion painted stones lining the path to the education hut in preparation for a ‘high ups’ inspection. ‘If it moves, salute it, if it doesn’t, paint it’, the saying went.
Once I cleaned billet hut windows. Airmen (never me) sent to clean WAAF hut windows reported seeing topless young ladies lying on their beds in their service knickers, colloquially known as passion dampers. Such boasting was always doubted. The ladies sought their male friends from among the aircrews, preferably officers, of which there were plenty. We ground staff lacked money and glamour.
I was sent on a three day anti aircraft gunnery course at RAF Mildenhall where I aimed at pictures of moving aircraft projected on the domed ceiling of the special building, accompanied by the noise of planes and gunfire. Not knowing what to do in the evenings, my colleague and I went twice to the local cinema to see a glamorous Betty Grable on film. Another time I went on an overnight visit to Waterbeach for a forgotten purpose. Such occasions were opportunities for the exchange of disgusting jokes.
Once a fortnight we joined pay parade in the NAFFI. I was then getting four shillings and six pence a day (?) as a Leading Aircraftsman (LAC), the highest grade I was ever likely to achieve as a late entrant conscript. Having initially received 3/- (?) a day, I had been promoted to AC2 on completion of the mechanics course at Cosford. Promotion to LAC on 1 June 1944 followed an assessment for colour blindness and an intelligence test in which I did quite well. Being a light smoker and seldom drinking alcohol, my pay more than met my need for pocket money and the purchase of an occasional train ticket from Ely to Cambridge, so I arranged for a small portion of my pay to be paid to my mother who saved it for me.
Once we were summoned to VD inspection, FFI it was called – free from infection. Some 100 airman with dropped trousers were examined in the NAFFI by a sturdy lady doctor who carried a knee donger to dong any attachments that failed to dangle. An airman, hero of the hour, said that being donged hurt. Nobody was diagnosed with VD as far as I know, but it had been only a cursory examination.
I spent many evenings in the billet hut, chatting, reading, darning socks or listening to the distorted noise of a wireless, or perhaps having a bath in one of the two bath cubicles in the wash building where we daily washed faces and hands in bowls lined with thick soapy scum. A 39 year old airman stoked the boiler that kept the water hot but didn’t clean the bowls.
Sometimes I cycled the half mile to the NAFFI for tea and a bite or to the education hut. There were no ENSA visits that I can recall and no place for them to perform. During winter I joined WEA (Workers Education Association) evening classes in nearby Sutton. One course was on literature, another on poetry. I remember studying Irish poet W. B. Yeats and the English Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ poem ‘Pied Beauty’.
‘Glory be to God for dappled things. For skies of couple colour as a brindled cow …’
On the way back to camp from Sutton one evening, I and numerous other airman were caught cycling without lights. I had no red rear light. I wrote to the court truthfully explaining that the rear light battery had been stolen in Ely a few days before and I had had no opportunity to buy another. I was fined 5/-.
Ely and its sparse entertainment was five miles away and, in practice, could only be reached by bicycle. It had one small cinema, a WI or YMCA canteen, pubs, a cafe that served beans or sometimes an egg on toast, and the cathedral which I, among few airmen, visited a couple of times. The cinema changed its programme twice a week but showed films only long after their initial release. I watched ‘Fantasia‘ twice in three days, probably having beans on toast on the outskirts of Ely on the way back to Mepal on my sturdy service bike.
I have no recollection of seeing officers or NCO aircrew in the Ely canteen, nor in any other one.
I cycled one summer afternoon to St Ives, looked round, had a bite to eat and cycled back over the fen to Mepal at dusk. An owl swept silently across the road close to my face, frightening me. Another afternoon I cycled to Chatteris and on to March, much impressed by the huge bog oak trunks on the roadside that had been preserved in the peat fen for several thousand years. A couple of times I cycled four or five miles with Binnie to earn cash stripping damsons from laden branches.
Towards the end of the war, after D-day, our planes gave tactical support to the army while the continuing strategic bombing of Germany.
Operations permitting, all ground staff enjoyed a week’s leave every three or four months and a 48 hour break in the interval, service needs permitting, for which we were issued with rail passes. We also got a 36 hour breaks from time to time, from Saturday lunch time to 23.59 hours on Sunday, but travelled at our own expense. When going on leave, Corporal Cooper allowed me to go for early tea if our daily engine checks were completed. Early tea, from 3.30, was much desired. Queues were shorter, the mess less crowded, the food freshly cooked and the tea freshly brewed. When without a travel pass, I caught a train to Cambridge, hitchhiked to Watford and bussed the final five miles to Kings Langley. Trains were often overcrowded so we stood in the corridor or sat on the floor. Fare dodgers piled into the loos and locked the door when a ticket inspector approached. Hitch hiking luck varied although I was never stranded. Once a Sunderland’s lorry picked me up probably on the A1 at Baldock and took me all the way to his base near my home in Kings Langley. Another time a US Army truck took me from Cambridge to Watford, the black driver swigging whiskey from a bottle every few miles. But lifts were mostly from town to town – Royston, Baldock, Stevenage, Hatfield bypass and Watford, usually having to walk across town for the next pick-up. Sometimes I rode in comfort, other times I bumped along on the back of a lorry. In Cambridge, I liked to browse in Heffer’s bookshop, then in Petty Curry. I returned by train, not wishing to risk Sunday evening lifts.
I chanced it one glorious summer evening. After waiting perhaps half an hour at Waterbeach, a few miles beyond Cambridge, I was picked up by an army dispatch rider and taken pillion for the last 15 miles or so. He went out of his way to drop me, much relieved, a couple of hundred yards from my hut at Mepal as the sun set.
The European War ended on 7 May 1945 and bombing ceased. The country celebrated. Our plane flew less often. Ground crews were invited on ‘Baedaker’ flights over Germany to see what our bombs had done. I went on one, lying on my tummy in the bomb aimer’s position in the nose of the plane, with an excellent view of the ground beneath as we flew over the coast, low over the North Sea, over the coast of Holland or Belgium and on to Germany. I remember seeing the floor of the North Sea clearly beneath the waves, the sandy beach of the European coast, then, from about 1,000 feet, saw the wrecked German factories and marshalling yards of the Ruhr and residential Dresden, famous for its almost complete destruction, hardly a building remained standing. The Germans had started the war, bombed our cities, killed thousand of our civilians and almost certainly killed two crews that I had served. They had ‘sown the wind and reaped a whirlwind’.
According to Wikipedia, 75NZ Squadron left Mepal in July 1945. I don’t remember the details. At some point I was transferred to a different Nissen hut to join men I didn’t know. The New Zealand Squadron was replaced by 44 Squadron, also operating Lancasters. I remember little about my six months with 44.
Sometime in 1945 an urge to learn came upon me. From whence it came, I know not. Where it led is the story of my life. It was not long after I had read an abandoned coverless copy of Pickwick Papers with the last page missing. I had left school at 15 years of age without any qualifications.
The education officer seemed pleased to have someone interested in his world. He gave lectures on rehabilitation into the expected post-war better world. I borrowed books from his small library and he offered me a new book he had just received – ‘The Song of Bernardette’ about the shrine at Lourdes which was and is said to have miraculous healing powers. I know a disabled man for whom it failed. I took an English correspondence course first, studying in the education hut. The Education Officer set me up in a quiet place to study. Then, getting ambitious, I started courses leading to London Matriculation, part one. I registered for the examination and later sat several three hour papers in London with hundreds of others at widely separated desks in a huge hall, writing furiously. I passed, then embarked on part two.
Meanwhile the European war ended. A few mechanics like me were being transferred to the Royal Navy to work on aircraft carriers (presumably) in the Far East. I was selected but the education officer said he would try to get me off on the grounds that I was studying for an examination. He succeeded, and a hut colleague went instead. I was unpopular and uncomfortable for a while but there was no going back.
A couple of months later my substitute came to see his old mates, proud of his sailor’s uniform, not unhappy. I doubt whether he saw action in the Far East as Japan surrendered three months after Germany, following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, although he may have gone there and seen more of the world.
It must have been well into the part two course when, out of the blue, the unbelievable happened. I was to be released back into civilian life at the request of the Ministry of Labour and National Service, specifically to go back into poultry keeping. Colleagues were madly envious, some of them having served up to five years. Perhaps someone in Whitehall thought that the national diet lacked sufficient animal protein and that poultry meat could be produced more quickly than any other.
It was not demobilisation, only a Class B release. I was to report to Watford Employment Exchange within seven days of release. I was relegated to class GII of the reserve and required to keep my uniform and be available for recall at a week’s notice. I was granted 21 days release leave before taking up employment. I received a gratuity of £15 (30 months @ 10/- a month) and a Post War Credit of £24 0s. 6d. (961 days at 6d per day).
So it was that 3006180 L.A.C. Guttridge, trade F.M.E., of V.G. Character and Sat. proficiency and NIL Marks and Scars, said goodbye to the RAF on Wednesday, 20 February 1946. The three week leave was counted as service so my release date was 13 March. Not until 30 June 1959 was I finally discharged from the reserve.
But first were the formalities. Once again I packed all my possessions in my kit bag, left an empty hut at Mepal – colleagues were all at their duties – humped my kit bag upon my back and caught the duty lorry to Ely station, changed at Cambridge for Cardington where I surrendered part of my kit, had my genitalia examined yet again for V.D. and was issued with a civilian suit of my choice – I chose a brown one. The single breasted jacket was too small, the trousers, with turn-ups, too baggy and the trilby hat looked silly on my head. I kept one uniform (my comfortable working battle dress), my RAF shirts, socks and underclothes. In my new suit, release papers in my pocket, train pass in hand and a lighter kitbag on my shoulder, I caught a train to Bletchley and changed to a stopping train for Kings Langley. I remember being restless, finding the journey slow and tedious in the non-corridor coach. At Kings Langley, I caught a bus to the common and walked the quarter mile home. I felt strange, empty of purpose. Mother was unimpressed with my suit.
My RAF career had been a happy time, generally speaking. I had been lucky. I had not been called upon to serve in North Africa, in France after D-day nor in Burma. I had done my job, enjoyed the camaraderie, the friendships, the responsibilities, the feeling of doing something useful.
I reported to the Labour Exchange. The man shook his head, ‘I’ve got no jobs in poultry keeping. Don’t know what to do with you.’ I explained that I could work on my father’s poultry farm. That satisfied him.
I continued to study for matriculation, passed part two and qualified for university.
Extract from my service record, with notes
75 Sqdn. 16. 3. 44. Arrived at Mepal.
33 Base (A) 26. 3. 44. But still at Mepal with 75 Sqdn.
75 Sqdn. 31. 4. 44. Still at Mepal.
33 Base. 1. 8. 44. Still at Mepal.
Mepal 18. 8. 45. This entry may be a consequence of 75 (N.Z.) Sqdn’s departure from Mepal while I stayed.
10a PDC. 20. 2. 46. Personal Dispatch Centre. Release at Cardington.
A.C.2. 27.7. 43. Aircraftsman 2. The lowest rank.
A.C.1. 8. 3. 44. Following completion of Flight Mechanics Engines course.
LAC. 1. 6. 44. Leading Aircraftsman.
My character was described a VG and my proficiency as ‘Sat’ on 5.2.44 and 31.12. 45.
‘Ex Remust FMA 63%’ was recorded on 8. 3. 44. I assume this refers to my completing the FME course at Cosford, 63% being my pass mark and Ex Remust being my remuster from FMA (Apprentice?) to Flight Mechanic Engines.
I was finally discharged on 30. 6. 59.
My membership of the Air Training Corp was noted in my service record.
– All text and photos (except for “S-Sugar”) Copyright © of Chester G. Guttridge.
– Thanks to Chester Guttridge for permission to reproduce this memoir and photographs from his collection.
– Thanks also to Kevin King, Chairman, Friends of 75 (New Zealand) Squadron Association, whose newsletter first published this account, and for his help in contacting Chester.