THE WAR YEARS AND MY TIME IN THE RAF
Fl/Sgt Edward Kent, Flight Engineer, 220 Squadron based in the Azores
I was 16 when the war started and serving my time as an apprentice painter and decorator in South Shields. Time went on and air raids became a very regular thing: houses were blown up, people were killed. Conscription was on the way and I wanted to become a pilot. Bomb shelters had been built in the streets for people to gather in for protection. At night, no lights were allowed to be shown, and there was a complete black out, being near the river living not far from the sea made the town a perfect target for bombers overhead. One night I remember in particular, it was my turn to stand-by with a work mate on fire-watch duty at my place of work. At midnight the air-raid sirens sounded and the town was heavily bombed. A few yards from where we were two shops were hit, resulting in several people being seriously hurt. Further along the street a department store was demolished and bombs had dropped on the market place, killing a lot of people.
A few days later a German bomber was hit and the crew bailed out, one of them came down rather fast and got his legs entangled in the telephone and trolley bus wires. When the home guard got to him they discovered he was only a boy, he was still conscious and crying out for his mother, needless to say he did not live. Night after night we had to get out of bed and go down to the shelter which had just been built outside of the house. Sleep was almost impossible; going to work every day was difficult as we had been up most of the night and were so tired.
The war continued and by that time I had reached the age of 17, and was determined to offer my services to my country. I went up to Newcastle to the Enlistment Centre to enquire on how to go about it. I came away dumbfounded: I had volunteered and was put on deferment until further notice.
Six months later I was notified to go to RAF, Padgate, to sit exams to be a pilot. A month went by when an official letter arrived, informing me that I had been accepted as a pilot and was again put on deferment. After two or three months I received a letter stating that due to a heavy influx, pilots were no longer in demand, but flight engineers were needed for heavy bombers. If I accepted, then call-up would be on my 18th birthday.How could I refuse, no way was I going to let this opportunity pass, and I accepted.
I left my employment a week before my birthday and two days later received instructions to go to a training unit in the midlands solely to get kitted out. The following day I would report to an Intake Centre at the well known holiday resort of Blackpool for basic training, such as marching and rifle drill.
Two weeks later I was on my way to Cardiff to begin my training and for three months did a course on learning the construction and aero–dynamics of an air craft. There was very little spare time, just study time – I was determined to achieve what I had set out to do, and not to fail. At the end of the course came a stiff exam and I passed.
Then it was back up to the midlands for a fitter’s course, taking different types of engines into consideration, one in particular called the Cyclone engine which was American. I was aware that this would be difficult as I knew nothing at all about engines, but again I was determined not to be a failure. I studied hard, there was no way I going to fail. After twelve hard weeks came the final moment - the test, I sat down in front of my examiner and the questions began, I was shaking, the first two or three went by, slowly but surely began to get confident, wasn’t as bad as I thought. The examiner looked, then smiled, and said “stop worrying”, you are alright. I knew then that I had passed, the relief was immense.
All that remained now was a seven-week course on aircraft engineering which meant going back to Wales. Arriving back at the centre we were asked if anyone had been given instruction on Cyclone engines, and our names were taken. The course began some of it very much like we had done before but with variations, and I felt very comfortable, knowing I had nothing to worry about. I received the results to discover another pass, and I breathed a sigh of relief. However, this did not last long, seemingly with knowledge now of a Cyclone engine, a further course was needed. I was dumbfounded, could not believe it, and the terror came back.
Then I was given the explanation, with having this knowledge we were destined to a squadron of American air craft and the Engineer also had to be a qualified air-gunner. Off we went to a gunnery school and what an experience it turned out to be. I had never flown before and stepping into a plane then sitting down and taking off was breath taking, I loved every minute. Once airborne you took turns at going into the gun turret and firing off shots at a target being pulled along by another plane a safe distance away. Then on landing found your score was checked to see how good you were. That was an introduction into what would partly be your responsibility in the future.
After two months at gunnery school my training came to an end. I had finally qualified as a flight engineer. Further classwork followed, taking a gun apart and putting it back together, then doing it blind folded to see how quick you were and also how adaptable. What I really enjoyed most of all was the flying, just sitting there and knowing that the plane was solely in your hands. Often when we were out firing I used to sometimes wish that I had been given the opportunity to become a pilot and wondered what the future held for me, would I be able to cope if I had been given the opportunity to become a pilot, little realising what the future did hold for me.
More classwork followed ensuring that we were paying attention to whatever was being taught, as your responsibility to your crew was imperative. The day came for the final test knowing full well that if you were declared a failure your future in the air was never going to be a reality. Fortunately my luck had not deserted me, I had passed, was then given my three stripes, my Engineer’s badge and a pass for fourteen days leave in which time I would be informed as to my next destination.
When I arrived home, my parents were delighted, and they couldn’t stop smiling, my Granddad just beamed. I stood there, full uniform, three stripes on each arm, and an Engineer’s badge on my left breast. I felt really good and had not been a disappointment to anyone and within me was glad it was all over, now I could relax.
Two weeks later I received orders to go to an air base three hours away from home. On arriving there I found the base deserted, went to the main office and saw the Adjutant, he was a very likeable old ex-pilot who fixed me up with a hut to stay in. Next morning he explained that there would be a delay in the crews coming and to go the airfield and make myself familiar with the aircraft I would be flying in. He also assured me that everything was going to be okay and if he did ever fly again it would be with a redhead because they always came back. He left me confident in the knowledge that my hair was red in colour.
On the airfield I found a fleet of B17 Bombers known as the Flying Fortress having just been flown over from the United States. I stayed with them all day and then went to see the Adjutant who could see that I was highly delighted and made me happier by saying I could go home for a week as it was getting near Christmas and I would be back at base for then. A few hours later I was back home my mother being a bit disappointed that I would be away at Christmas, but it was still good to be home. Came the time to go back found myself carrying a small case, inside was a Christmas cake and a tin of hot dog sausages. On arriving back found the place still deserted, two days more and it would be Christmas, dropped my case on the bed and went back home and had Christmas.
Returned back to base, place in an uproar, people everywhere, and hut lights blazing, everybody coming in from all over. Made my way to the hut and could hear a lot of noise, opened the door was greeted with silence, full of aircrew, all Canadians. There was silence as I approached my bed, on it lay one piece of Christmas cake and one sausage. Suddenly I was lifted into the air, they all sang Merry Christmas - I shall never forget those guys. Later I was known as Red. The next day we were all crewed up Pilot was F/L Bill Jarrett; Co-Pilot - F/O Joe Webb; two Wireless Ops - F/Sgt Tom Fink and F/Sgt Hank Gable all from Canada. Then came our Wireless Op Mechanic - Sgt Barry Beestan from Liverpool; Navigator - F/L Len Johnson and last of all myself.
The next few days were spent in the air doing different exercises including gunnery and low level bombing. We practised using a large beer barrel and each had a go at hitting it using the bombsight. Each day we met at dispersal for orders and the following day took off for Thornaby where preparations would be made to go to our Operational Squadron which was situated on an island called Terceira in the Azores, in the Atlantic Ocean.
On the way we headed North passing over the River Tyne looking down over where I lived and landed shortly at Thornaby. Later the squadron were kitted out for warmer weather and took off for an overnight stop at Gibraltar, and remembering the tales I had heard found the place very interesting I went up the Rock to see the monkeys. We left Gibraltar early morning and coming into sight of the Azores were amazed at the size of the island.
Making the approach to the runway meant having mountains on either side of you which did not impress me at all. Upon making a safe landing we taxied round to dispersal, made our report, directed to our quarters where a meal was laid on for us. Later with the weather being warm we changed into our khaki gear and then made our way to the Mess to see if anyone was about.
Upon entering I came face to face with Fred Evans a very good friend from my early training days as an engineer. Whilst doing a course we were given a weekend off and seeing as it was too far for me to go home, Fred took me to his house to meet his family which I thoroughly enjoyed. Somewhere along the line we had got parted, but were delighted to get back together again. That night we got together in the Mess and Fred and I chatted about the time we were training and the night I went to his home to meet his family.
The following day our serious work began, and in the afternoon we took off to escort a convoy on its way. On arrival I was amazed at the number of ships we were caring for. Radio silence was kept throughout, only to be used if attacked. Darkness came upon us and we reached a point where a flight from Gibraltar took over from us after six hours patrolling. It was very tiring and landing in the dark was not easy. Reported to Ops Room, went to our beds and slept. We had the following day off, and a visit to the town was made. No transport being available a horse and buggy was used.
The town itself was at least a hundred years behind the times. From then on that was the way we lived – did an operation, came back, slept, then sat in the sun until our next flight. You could be called upon at any time, U-boats kept on being a problem. Then one day – a crew taking off were short of an Engineer, it meant Fred or I had to go. We tossed up - Fred went but he never came back. I was shaken, as I knew he must have been killed but we were never allowed to talk about these things.
Operation after operation followed when suddenly out of the blue an emergency and we were on standby. Two airmen had taken ill and with not enough medical attention available had to go immediately to England. In no time we were off, and landed very close to a hospital. We were informed that it would be a week before going back. Arrangements were made and we were given permits to go home by train, and would be notified when to return. I was delighted!
On returning to the island I found that things had been changing. We were losing our B-17 which was being replaced by a B24 – the Liberator. A searchlight was fitted to the underside of the starboard wing which could be switched on when going in on an attack. The aircraft was also adapted for two extra beam gunners giving more protection.
A new Pilot was brought in, a Canadian named F/O Harry Shaak, who I took to at once. The two new waist gunners, one a young lad barely nineteen and the other an old timer Sgt McMahon with whom I became very good friends. We had our photograph taken together and I still carry it to this day.
Back on the island we carried on as before. The two gunners were given plenty of practice as did the Pilot who operated the Leigh Light. Convoy patrols continued, made contacts but never got to use the Light. At times we flew for hours without making any contact at all – very unusual. Arriving back at base feelings had changed – a lot of tension in the air. The following day a Liberator coming over from America with a crew of ten and fourteen passengers, we did not know who, came into land, miscalculated, struck the mountain and crashed. No-one survived.
More and more ships were coming through, no mishaps, no U–boats. Out of the blue a signal from Group – Germany had surrendered. We were all going home. The place was in an uproar.
Our mission had been to protect the convoys of ships coming through the Atlantic Ocean from marauding U-Boats. We spent hours in the air both day and night with a lot of success. After 12 long months Germany finally gave in and we came home to be stationed at RAF Cambridge.
In the turmoil I lost my two new gunners, my mad Canadians vanished. The wireless mechanic and myself were the only two left, but we still had the B24 having been transferred to Transport Command.
They took out the bomb-bay in the B24 and all the armament as there was no use for that any more. We were given two new pilots plus a navigator. From then on we left our base, destination was Karachi in India, with stop-offs on the way. A new life was about to begin. It was now August, the middle of the year, and the weather was now hot and beautiful.
We were on our way to Karachi, our first trip out East. After seven hours we landed in Castel Benito, near Tripoli in Libya, not knowing what we were carrying and never to find out. Took off early next morning at 7am on a seven hour flight to Lydda in Palestine. Our second pilot took over on this flight taking over 6½ hours. We left next morning at 8am heading for Shaibah in the middle of the desert near Basrah in Iraq, landing with engine trouble.
The ground crew did not work through the day due to the fact that it got very hot. A new magneto had to be fitted but the ground crew did not know how, never having worked on a B24. The result being the job had to be done by me, at the same time instructing them how it was to be done, for which they were very grateful.
This flight had taken over four hours and with the delay meant we had to take off at midnight, destination Karachi, a seven hour flight. We were very tired on landing and sleep was the first order of day, after which we were given the rest of the day off. This gave us the opportunity to give Karachi a visit. Half an hour away from Karachi you could smell it, and stepping off the sand with one foot you put the other into the town, showing you were that close to the desert. Walking around was being in a huge market, everything being under cover. Suddenly a local in front of you would lie down and go to sleep! The sacred cow could walk about the streets, in and out of the shops, and no-one was allowed to touch it. I was not at all impressed. Coming out of the desert a crowd of travellers sat down to eat, fruit skins were thrown over their shoulders and were immediately attacked by flies.
The next day we took off on our return back to England over the same route as going. With Christmas almost upon us I was called into the office to be informed that our Pilot had been promoted to Squadron Commander. From then on I always referred to him as our ‘Skipper’. With him being Irish we were hopping over to Ireland to pick up a Christmas cake! I was at once reminded of my mad friends the Canadians.
A couple of trips were made to India and back, and I was given some leave. It was good to be home again except that I learned two of my friends living in the street had been lost at sea whilst serving in the Royal Navy.
On returning to base there were a lot of rumours going about, talk of lectures on being shot down over the jungle and how to survive. The war was not fully over – Japan had to be contended with, and I was not very happy. A couple of days went by and I was called back into the Office, thought ‘Here we go again’ but I was totally wrong. Skipper told me to sit down and then asked me if I would like to go home. I remember replying that I had already been home, but he said that he knew that but this was for good. Due to being employed in the building industry I could have a Class B release and once again become a civilian.
They gave me time to think, I loved the life I was having but eventually realised it could not go on forever. I accepted my release and two days later I was de-mobbed mid morning and by mid-afternoon I was back at base, they chased me home! There was no going back, the RAF and I finally said goodbye.
I went away as a boy and returned as a man. My teenage years were gone. However I do not regret it.
Back row (left to right):
F/Sgt Tommy Fink (Wireless Op), F/O Harry Shaak, (Pilot), F/O Joe Webb (Co-Pilot), F/Sgt Ted Kent (F/Engineer) and F/Sgt Hank Gable (Wireless Op).
Front row (left to right):
F/Sgt Barry Beestan (Wireless Op Mech), Joe Haddleton and F/L Len Johnson, Navigator.
From Cambridge we regularly flew out East to places like Tripoli, Karachi, Madras, Cairo. The war with Japan was still going on and we started getting prepared to go out there when quite unexpectedly I was given the chance to come home.