John Williams RAF
28th January 1953 until 28th January 1956
The Memoirs of John Williams written in July 2007 recall a unique experience of 3 years in the British Royal Air Force in the mid '50's, and his civilian experiences that followed on Her Majesty's "Troops" Ships. The story of a marine plumber who saw more service on the water than in the air and who after his military service spent more time on privately contracted Troopships than did platoons of British soldiers. Follow John's unravelling story as we gradually publish the chapters and related photographs. John can be contacted via the Editor or go to "Most Wanted" for John's service record.
OVERVIEW OF RAF DAYS
My association with troopships, and ships generally, began when I left school at Christmas 1947. I commenced an apprenticeship with a ship repair company in my hometown Birkenhead on 20th January 1948 as a marine plumber. Among the ships we worked on was a number of troopships belonging to the Bibby Line of Liverpool. I remember one of the first ships I worked on was the Devonshire. Unknown to me at the time of course was the fact that I was to have a long and enjoyable association with this ship, even to the extent of meeting my future wife aboard her,but that was in the distant future.
My first sight of Devonshire was on a cold snowy winters morning, when we went aboard her, after her arrival the day before from somewhere exotic. At that time she was still in her wartime colour of Battleship Grey all over. Very much different to her peace time trooping colours of white hull with a wide blue band around her and funnel, derricks and masts a buff colour. As the apprentice I was carrying the tradesman's tools and humping them up the gangway ready eventually to start work, but before that I wanted to have a good look around. Although I was born and brought up in a ship building town, this was one of the first ships I had been aboard and I wanted to explore.
One of my outstanding memories of that first day was when I was taken up to the deck where the funnel was. The older man I was with went over to the funnel and started to open a door in it. I shouted to him that he would have all the smoke out on us. He just grinned and carried on opening it. Of course there was no smoke to come out. I didn't realise that most ships funnels are merely casings surrounding the various pipes and ducts that are exhausting to atmosphere. Inside there were gratings up which you could climb to the top if you needed to. My first lesson and one I have never forgotten. Of course there were many other things to learn too and one of the most important was learning to find my way about the ship and find out where the main valves and stopcocks are, so that in an emergency I knew exactly where
I spent eight months living and working on the" Sea Mechanist", a floating workshop on the Great Bitter Lake. (Photo Left: John Williams extreme left). Our job being to service the Z craft of their fleet of tank landing craft. After that, I had two more postings within the zone, at El Firdan and Abyad, before going home for demob after two years and two months in Egypt. This time I was going by sea aboard the troopship MV Lancashire, a ship I knew well. Although I had literally been on hundreds of ships during my time in ship repair I had never actually been to sea. I don't think we can count the Mersey Ferry. (Left: Before C.O's Parade El Firdan). I was one of maybe twenty airmen sent to Port Said to join the ship the evening before she was due to sail. We went through the formalities of arriving and being given our troopdeck and berth along with our meal tickets, and then being left to ourselves while other service personnel were still joining till fairly late into the evening. Although there was a canteen for troopdeck personnel it wasn't open that evening so there wasn't a lot to do except wander aimlessly around or sit in the canteen and play cards etc before deciding it was time to get some sleep.
We had had our evening meal which was served in a cafeteria style manner on partitioned stainless steel trays. This was not too bad while in port but was a different kettle of fish when at sea especially in rough weather. The sleeping arrangements were something else. Not the most comfortable way of sleeping as it consisted of standee bunks which were six bunks, three either side of posts welded top and bottom and were spaced about two feet apart between your bunk and the one above. This arrangement was alright if you got on well with the men you were sharing the bunks with, but often you were wakened by someone needing to go to the toilet during the night. The bottom bunk was the best bet as the man in the top bunk had to use the centre bunk to climb up into his bunk.
Another problem cropped up if there was bad weather and one or both of them was a poor sailor. I'll leave it to your imagination to know what that could be like. After a nights sleep it was time to get up and go up on deck to see our departure from Port Said. Port Said in December can be a rather cold and windy place especially to us as we had been used to warmer temperatures during our time in the zone,so it was time to don our greatcoats as there was quite a wind blowing and this increased as we left the shelter of the harbour and ran parallel to the breakwater before getting into the open sea.
We started feeling the ship moving about even before we cleared the breakwater and it really began to move about a bit once we cleared it. As the wind was coming from the west and we were heading north toward Cyprus we had the wind on the beam and started to roll quite a bit. We gave each other some rather apprehensive looks as we started feeling a bit light headed. Some troops were already starting to be sick although I am pleased to say I never was. As we sat or laid around feeling sorry for ourselves, we had a visit from our Sergeant i/c the troopdeck. He wanted to know if any of us were interested in photography, and without stopping to think I said I was. "Good" he said " You and your three mates are on the cinema projectionists fatigue party." I should have known better after three years service, but I put it down to being in a weakened state due to the weather.
As it happened it was the best thing to happen to us, as our duties entailed setting out the seating for film shows and carrying the projectors and film to wherever they were needed.In this way we got to go to parts of the ship we would never normally be allowed to go to First, Second, and Third Class sections of the ship as well as the troops section had film shows and we got to see all the films, even on one occasion in the crews section. It was a doddle. I found out later that it was common practice to give as many troops as possible jobs around the ship and there was someone helping out in every conceivable job that could be found for them. This helped relieve the boredom that inevitably creeps in during a sea voyage especially on the longer voyages. (Above left: Early evening drink on board)
By the next morning the sea was calm and we had stopped rolling about as we had arrived at Famagusta in Cyprus. It was just as well it had calmed down as the ship was too big to enter the harbour at Fama G. and we had to anchor about a mile from the shore.
The usual way of embarking and disembarking was to send out a Z craft to tie up alongside the trooper and use it as a pontoon on which our passengers landed after being transported out from the shore via another Z Craft. From there it was a straight forward climb from the pontoon up the ships gangway. Some of the families needed help getting aboard but the troops were well able to manage it. No Health and Safety Regulations in those days. Both Famagusta photos above courtesy of http://www.pbase.com/alexis/image/52799684
(Top is Famagusta Harbour, bottom is The Tower of Othello)
For those who don't know what a Z Craft looks like let me explain. They are basically a pontoon with an engine room at the back for the propulsion and with a bridge over the top of that for navigating. They have a flat open deck which was only about two feet above
The rest of the voyage home was fairly uneventful with the weather behaving itself . We called in to Malta for more troops and given a few hours run ashore.
Valetta's fortified harbour: Courtesy http://www.caronia2.info/d660518.php
The first bit of what we would call something civilised for those of us who had been stuck in the Egyptian desert for a couple of years. We bypassed Gib during the night so most of us never got to see it . The crossing of the dreaded Bay of Biscay was something of an anti climax as most of us were expecting a rough passage, but fortunately for us it was like a mill pond. As we got further north the temperature dropped quite drastically and as we picked up the Liverpool pilot off point Lynas in Anglesey it started to snow. This was cause for great excitement among the troops, as most of us hadn't seen any rain for a couple of years much less snow.
By the time we were entering the Mersey there was quite a covering of snow and snowball fights were in full swing. (Photo left is Salisbury Dock, Liverpool Harbour). This soon stopped as we pulled alongside the Landing Stage and we started looking amongst the assembled faces on shore for anyone we might know. I was lucky enough to hear my name being called and looked across the ever decreasing span of water between the ship and the stage, to find all my family there. I was the eldest of seven children and they were all there except my next eldest brother who was away with the Cheshire Regiment. Unfortunately they were not allowed aboard and I wasn't allowed ashore so we had to shout back and forth across the 40/50 foot gap that separated us. They seemed to be prepared to stay the night until I told them to go home as they must have been freezing. My mother came back in the morning and met me when I finally got ashore the next morning, and accompanied me to Lime St Station, as I had to go down to Innesworth for demob. It was another two days before I finally got home just in time for Christmas.
During the first twelve months of an airmans service it was compulsory to
Eventually the engines were started and we started taxiing to our takeoff point. I was surprised at the noise, as of course military aircraft are not sound proofed or insulated at all. In addition to that, there seemed to me to be a few draughts due to ill fitting doors etc. Of course if they need to fly at any great height the crew would go onto oxygen so it didn`t matter too much Fortunately we would be flying at fairly moderate heights so we wouldn`t need oxygen and as it was early summer we shouldn`t be too bothered by cold. Then the engines were opened up and we trundled off along the runway. I use the word trundle deliberately as I thought the aircraft was never going to pick up enough speed to lift off. The first time I realised we must have been airborne was when suddenly we were over water and that was a couple of hundred feet below us. The runway ended at the cliff edge of the north coast of Cornwall. We were about eight miles east of Newquay. We flew several hundred miles out over the Atlantic before turning to fly to our rendezvous over Odiham. This was where I was about to be amazed. When I went forward to the cockpit the pilot was sitting in his underpants and vest and sweating quite a lot. As I watched, the engines were constantly being fine tuned and course changes made in order to keep the aircraft on course and on time according to the prearranged schedule. This was obviously harder work than I, as a common erk, could have realised. After a while I went to the rear of
Before I continue with my story of my life after my demob, it might be a
So after mating up with a couple of other lads who were also to take a test
John Williams SAC, RAF, has a "Mention" posted to our MOST WANTED website that lists service details of British and Australian Servicemen and Women. CLICK the hotlinked title to travel.
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Above: A rare Kit Inspection
Above: de Lessops statue at Port Said in 1953, later destroyed by the Egyptians.
Above: The Olympic Pool at Fayid.
Below: View from the Station Workshop
Below: Bomb Dumping. JW standing on a 2000lb bomb
Above: Bombs away in the Med.
Canal Road to Port Said
Searchlight Tower at Kibrit
JW at El Firdan
Z craft at Port Said 1940's. The Z craft was designed and built by the Royal Engineers Inland Water Transport section. (Photo: Unknown)
The following collection of photographs are being captioned to fit JW's unfolding story. Come back soon.