Fighting for King and Country
Residents share their tales of daring aerial exploits, royal visits and improvised engineering.
I served in the RAF as an aero engine fitter. I was trained well, but some of the training turned out not to be true in practice and we had to adapt. In West Africa we had to work on American aircraft with British tools, which used a different system of measurement. We sometimes used a West African penny to make the spanner fit!
On one occasion, we were flying at 500 feet above sea level in a rainstorm. As a ‘flying fitter’, one of my duties was to assist other passengers into the dinghy if we were forced to land at sea. I asked the pilot, “Do you mind if I stand in the dinghy and assist the passengers in instead?” He said, “This is no time to be funny.” I replied, “I’m not being funny, I can’t swim!”
Those of like minds seemed to gravitate together in the barracks and I had some really close friends. After the war we lost touch, but one night I received a phone call asking for me. It was my closest friend from my time in service, who found me via the “Where are they now?” radio show. We arranged to meet again at York Air Museum and had a great day together.
Unfortunately the shelters were damp and in winter it was very cold without a fire or a heater. I developed pleurisy, so I annoyingly wasn’t permitted to serve. It’s a shame really, as it would have opened my eyes to new experiences.
My younger sister served in a munitions factory. I remember when she started. It was very amusing, as she was under 5 foot tall so her uniform was far too large, with everything falling way past her hands and feet!
Part of the factory where my sister was working had a direct hit, though fortunately it wasn’t her section. She was able to come home for a short time, but unfortunately she had to return shortly afterwards.
When I was called up at 18 years old there were just seven months left and Germany was fairly peaceful. It was actually quite exciting to go and we made light of the situation.
I was posted to the cookhouse, first in Hamburg and then Hannover. I also met my wife in Germany. We settled there after the war, married and had two children.
When we returned to Britain we had to live in army ‘married quarters’ for a while. Despite the fact they were German, there was no animosity towards my wife and kids and most people treated them with respect.
I joined the Wrens in 1942. My cousin worked in a factory and it turned her fingers yellow, so I didn’t really fancy doing that! I was stationed in Plymouth as a Marine Wren. Mostly I enjoyed the role – except for the drills, or when we had to serve food the officers’ food.
The Duchess of Kent came to visit us – what a beautiful woman she was! Her train was delayed for over two hours on her way up, so we had to wait for ages on the parade ground until she had inspected us all.
On one occasion, I was on a boat to the Isle of Wight. I met a handsome navy man whose mother came to meet him on arrival. She was there in place of another young woman who she did not approve of for her son. That worked out quite well for me and we married in 1944!
I signed up at 17 years old and trained in Rhodesia, learning to fly a Lancaster, and completed 30 bombing raids as a Flight Lieutenant. It was a terrible feeling, dropping bombs on civilians, but we were at war. I earned a Distinguished Flying Cross for my troubles.
I was coming back to England from Capetown, on the Troopship Orcades. One day when talking to Peter, a Midshipman, I saw a splash in the water, which he said was a whale. Actually, it was a German U-boat periscope and we were hit by their torpedo. Remarkably, Peter made it to the rank of Rear Admiral!
We jumped into lifeboat but the bungs were missing, so water was gushing in. I had to bail it out with my cap! Eventually we replaced the bungs and were picked up and taken to New York. When I got back home and reported to the station commander, he said, “What’s that on your head?!” I said, “I had to use it to bail out a lifeboat!” They still made me buy another one.
I also had some shaky situations in the skies. I once bombed an aerodrome at Le Coulet in Belgium, almost destroying the runway. On a later raid, my plane was damaged on route to Cologne after ‘heavy flack’ and I had to land on the very same runway! On another raid we were set upon by a German Messerschmitt after dropping our bombs. I had to take evasive action before we could seek cloud cover and recorded it in my log book – ‘Major corkscrews on the way back’.
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Gilbert is an avid supporter and previous season ticket holder at both Nottingham Forest and Nott’s County football clubs. Thanks to Deputy Manager, Jasmyne, Gilbert was able to meet Nathan Tyson, an English professional footballer who has played for both teams!
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