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.
Above: A rare Kit Inspection
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
to isolate a section if the need arose. This stood me in good stead many years later. There were other ships of the Bibby Line on which I worked over the five years of my apprenticeship and several of them were also troopships. All Bibby Line ships at that time were named after English Counties and the names Oxfordshire, Somersetshire, Cheshire, Lancashire etc will be familiar names to most servicemen.
Eventually the five years of my apprenticeship were almost up, and this was the time when most young men were required to do National Service in the British Armed Forces. I was no different, although I had been granted deferment till I was 21 to allow me to finish my apprenticeship. I opted to join the RAF and do three years instead of two in order to get the trade of my choice and a bit more pay. I finished my apprenticeship on the 20th January 1953 and was in the RAF on the 28th. After my basic training I was posted to St Eval in Cornwall, and spent a glorious summer there before being posted to Egypt in the October of that year. I was flown out to Fayid in the Canal Zone and eventually posted to Kabrit, then an attachment with the Royal Engineers with their Inland Water Squadron. Obviously someone had been looking up my records!
Above: de Lessops statue at Port Said in 1953, later destroyed by the Egyptians.
Above: The Olympic Pool at Fayid.
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,
Below: View from the Station Workshop
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.
Below: Bomb Dumping. JW standing on a 2000lb bomb
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)
Above: Bombs away in the Med.
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.
(Left) Relaxed moments in my Tent at El Firdan
JW at El Firdan
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 water and with a ramp at the front from which tanks can be loaded and unloaded. They were used in Egypt for transporting stores of various kinds up and down the canal. We also used them for bomb dumping into the Med. More on that another time. After picking up some more troops and families we were on our way again by mid afternoon.
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.
Canal Road to Port Said
Searchlight Tower at Kibrit
JW at El Firdan
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
take educational sessions occasionally. It was after one of these sessions
when we were having a chat together that the subject of flying came up. The young Pilot Officer who was taking the class asked who had flown before. Apparently out of about twenty of us there were eight of us who had never been up. He promised to do something about this and he would let us knowwhat he could manage. About two weeks later when I had all but forgotten about it, there was a phone call to the section asking for me. The Flight Sergeant I/C the workshops wanted to know what I had been up to as there was a Pilot Officer asking for me. "No idea Chief "I replied. All Flight Sergeants in charge of a section are called Chiefies. It was the PO from the education section telling me he had arranged a flight for the following morning and I was to go to the Parachute section to pick up a parachute and Mae West then I would be taken out to the aircraft When he said parachute, I said that I was having second thoughts about going. He told me he had been to a lot of trouble to arrange this flight and I had better be there or else. Apparently it is mandatory for anyone flying in military aircraft to have parachutes. What I would have done in an emergency I don`t know,but Ilike to think I would have remembered some of the old films and done the right things.
The following morning I turned up at the parachute section to find a couple of the others there too so I didn`t feel too bad after that.. We went in and signed out the parachute and the Mae West and staggered, or was it swaggered out, with them slung over our shoulders and feeling like the Dam Busters going off on a raid. We boarded the vehicle that was waiting to take us out to the aircraft which was about a couple of miles away over the other sideof the airfield. When we went to board the aeroplane [it is never called a plane]. I asked one of the crew what I should do with all this tackle. He said "Oh just shove it under that seat out of the way,you can pick it up again when we land" That is where it stayed for the next five hours. I found that we were going to take part in a rehearsal along with otheraircraft from all over the country for a flypast in June when the Queen would be reviewing the RAF at Odiham in Hampshire.
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
the aircraft to the spot where a rear gunner would have sat in a bomber. In this aircraft there was a sponge rubber mattress where an observer could look out of the Perspex cover in a search and rescue operation. It was a bit unnerving when I first lay on this as it juts out a couple of feet
beyond the tail and you seem to be suspended in mid air. I knew we must have been getting close to our destination as we had been flying over land for half an hour or so. Then suddenly, out of nowhere, the air was full of aircraft. I think there were probably forty or fifty aircraft behind us and I have no idea how many ahead of us. Then as suddenly as they appeared they disappeared. Once again the sky was empty. I have always admired the navigational skills shown by these aircrews to be able to navigate to such a high degree of accuracy. These aircraft came together from all over the UK to a little spot over the Hampshire countryside and to within seconds of their allotted times. We had travelled over six hundred miles to get there and we were still on time. Amazing! We then made our way back to St Evaland we landed and handed in our parachutes and went off for tea. It was several hours before my hearing returned to normal.
I was stationed in Cornwall right through the summer of 53 and it was a
great place to be as a young man. I had a mate who was a member of a small dance band and although I couldn`t play myself I often accompanied the band when they played in some of the various village halls on Saturday evenings. I helped make up the numbers to pay for the cost of transport around the county. There never seemed to be many local men at these events and I was told that the majority of them went away to work as there was so little employment locally. Well their loss was my gain and I became quite friendly with one particular girl who lived in St Austel. However it was a romance doomed to fail as we didn`t see each other very often due to the distance separating us and the few opportunities to meet. We corresponded for a while even after I was posted to Egypt, but gradually even that stopped. My posting to Egypt was I think due to my volunteering for service overseas.
In the early fifties there was an RAF Flying Training establishment in
Southern Rhodesia [nowadays known as Zimbabwe] that was the place I
volunteered for, but finished up in Egypt. I was sent up to Lytham St Annes for kitting out with my tropical gear and then down to Hendon in transit to Blackbushe Airfield to emplane for Egypt.
Before I continue with my story of my life after my demob, it might be a
good idea to relate a little about my experiences in the RAF. The first
contact I made with the RAF was when I had to register for National Service before I was 18 at Pownall Square in Liverpool. After a medical and some aptitude tests I was accepted for service in the RAF, something I had wanted to do since the age of eight during the war. However, I think there must have been a mistake somewhere along the line as I was going to be a pilot. Unfortunately they had all the pilots they wanted and instead offered me a trade in whatever I felt I could manage. Why would I want to learn another trade? I already had one. So the Flight Sergeant who interviewed me suggested I might already be qualified for something in the General Engineering line. I told him that I didn`t think a ship builder/repairer would be of much use with aircraft. After discussing the pro`s and con`s we settled on my entry as a welder, which was something I had been doing during the first half of my apprenticeship. There was a couple of draw backs to this, as first I would have to sign on for three years and my acceptance was contingent on my passing a trade test. After a little thought I decided that an extra year wouldn`t hurt,and besides the pay was a little better than NS pay. Having made that decision, I had to take a trade test, and for this I had to go to RAF Cardington in Bedfordshire. This was to be my first taste of what life in the Air Force would be like. I have to say I was quite impressed with the living conditions, as every thing was spick and span, what I didn`t realise was that this was only due to the hard work of other lads just like me. I was given a bed for the night and a mug and what the corporal I/C the hut said were Eating Irons. Of course I was still a civilian so there was no marching about or being shouted at. I was shown where to get a meal and where the NAAFI was, and told my test would take place the following morning, and till then I was free to do as I pleased.
So after mating up with a couple of other lads who were also to take a test
in other trades, I spent a couple of hours in the NAAFI before going back to the billet and getting a nights sleep. On the following morning I went for some breakfast and then reported to another hut. This camp was all huts. Once I was in there I was directed to a table at which a Flight Sergeant was sat, and told to sit down. It was then I got my first lesson in RAF bullshit. The F/S opened a sheaf of papers and asked me a few basic questions on Oxy/Acetylene welding that anyone with a modicum of knowledge of the subject would have been able to answer. After a few minutes of this with the F/S reading questions from his papers and me giving him the answers,he said, "Right, That’s it .You pass. I asked him where I went to for the practical test. He said " What practical test? I wouldn`t know anything about it, I only ask the questions" He confided that he was only filling in time till his demob came up. This was 1950 and there were still a few wartime airmen about who had not yet been demobbed. I was told I would enter the RAF with the exalted rank of AC1,
which is the norm for any airman who has completed his trade training. As I wouldn`t be needing any training I would be fully trained when I entered the RAF three years hence. I have no idea how much that ten minutes cost the RAF but it was worth it to me as I had a couple of days off work for which I was paid and free rail travel and accommodation and meals for two days. What a farce!
It was three years later when I finally had to return to Cardington on
January 28th 1953 to be kitted out and attested as they call it, before
being sent with the rest of my intake to Bridgenorth in Shropshire for basic
training. Normally basic training in the RAF lasts eight weeks, and ends
with a passing out parade. This wasn`t to be our fate, as the date of our
passing out parade coincided with the date of the formation of the RAF on
1st April 1918. Instead we were to take part in a commemorative parade
through Manchester, complete with flypast. For this, on the fifth week of
our training we went to RAF Wilmslow near Manchester where we had an
intensive last three weeks of marching and drill etc. On the day of the
parade we assembled in a park three miles from Manchester City Centre,and after inspections by some military big wigs we marched off with fixed bayonets and four bands playing. I believe there was about 2,000 men and women on that march as all the intakes from other recruit training centres for that date were also on parade. That march made a big impression on me and I never forgot it. To my surprise no one I ever spoke to subsequently had even heard of it.
After a short leave I had to report to my first permanent posting,. RAF St
Eval in Cornwall. A Coastal Command station. It was then that I realised
that somehow I had made a mistake with the date when I was due to report. I should have been there on the Sunday to report for duty on the Monday. I was a day adrift. My mind was in a turmoil thinking of all sorts of dire consequences. After being used to the strict discipline of basic training I expected to be court marshalled at least. However when I reported to the guardroom on the Monday evening, The SP Corporal on duty ,said not to worry as no one was expecting me. A huge weight lifted off my mind at that and I decided that if this is what the RAF is like I might enjoy my time in it. I think there is one aspect of RAF service that may be different to the army and that is that most times RAF personell travel between postings as individuals and not as a group. Another strange custom is that when you get to a new posting you have to go through a procedure known as arriving. This is a process whereby you are given a form on which are listed just about every section on the camp. You have to visit each one and sign in and by this means you are registered as being on the strength. The older airmen who have been through this process several times at different camps can make
it last four or five days and have a good skive at the same time. I
completed in two days and was told I should have taken longer. As some RAF camps are spread over huge distances, especially flying stations as this one was, I could easily have gotten away with it. When being posted elsewhere you went through a process known as clearing, the reverse of arriving.
Once the preliminaries were completed it was time to report to my section
which was the Station Workshops flight in the General Engineering Squadron. Which in turn was one of the squadrons which help make up the Technical Wing. Most RAF Flying stations are made up of three wings. The other two being the Administrative wing and the Flying wing.
I found that most of my work would be in the repair and maintenance of MT vehicles and ground equipment, little if any welding is done on aircraft.
The only welding on aircraft I ever did was on the engine baffles of the
Shackleton aircraft, which were flown from there on maritime reconnaissance flights. These were made of a new metal to me called Inconel and required a new technique which I had to learn. There was quite a flow of these baffles coming through as they had to stand a lot of heating and cooling and they were inclined to crack under the stress. As it wasn`t a vital part of the aircraft it was permissible to weld these cracks up to prevent them spreading further. Another job and one I enjoyed was repairs to the many old cars and motorbikes belonging to the aircrews and which they raced about the airfield on with little apparent regard for safety.
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.
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