We arrived in Liverpool in the damp gloom that seems to associated with homecoming servicemen. The new officers looked just that! New and shiny uniforms, new and shiny caps. One could sense, if not see, that slight curl of the lips that veteran non commissioned officers reserve for newly commissioned officers.
The new sergeant pilots fitted in far more easily. They only had to 'age' their new chevrons and wings. These were displayed by sticking the left breast through the open train window as we clattered out of Liverpool station. We came to a halt (trains never seemed to go far without stopping) by a group of platelayers, one of whom said "Just got'em lads?" It cut like a knife. It was not said in an unkindly manner but it was enough. The window was shut and the usual unhealthy fug built up. It seemed strange to us that the new sergeant pilots, some of whom had been with us for a year or more drifted off and we saw them no more.
A few day's leave. The day after getting there my sister and first serious girl friend turned up unannounced. They had joined the W.A.A.F.s together and had managed to keep together. They were stationed at Totton, Bomber Command and were in high spirits and giggling. I said that they were lucky to be able to get leave at such short notice. With much more giggling they said that they had not had permission.
"WHAT!!!' 'You have gone AWOL?" Here I was with two giggling idiots and I had only just got my wings and commission. This could blow the lot and send me back to the ranks after all that hard work and before I had done 'anything'! Stupid at this distance in time but they were packed off back to their unit in the hope that their friends had been able to cover for them. Fortunately they had been covered and they got away with it.
I had only been there about 48 hours when the telegram arrived "Report to No 17 A.F.U. (Advanced Flying Unit) Watton at once." Watton was even more isolated than it is now. The Officer's Mess was in a lovely house close to the airstrip and the other members were most welcoming which was just as well because none of my friends had been posted there. We were a motley bunch, quite a few Scandinavians and various other nationalities. We were not going to have much spare time but it looked as though Sundays would be free.
We were to be flying Masters Mark I with a Kestrel engine and Mark II with Mercury XXs. The Masters were totally different from the Harvards we had been flying before. The whole impression was of a slightly tatty operational aircraft with the British type of instrument panel with it's familiar instrument layout. One thing that was noticeable. All of the old hands wore seamen's stockings. It was so obvious. All singles pilots found the vulnerability of knees to cold. It really became miserable at any altitude and there was plenty of that to come. Mothers and girl friends were called upon and I was very lucky in being kitted out so quickly.
The clear skies of Canada belonged to another age so we had to fly every minute of clearish weather. There was to be night flying aplenty, cross country navigation, blind flying for many hours. The last meant flying under a hood that obscured any sight of the outside with an instructor in the back seat. This was an awful bind hour after hour, recovering from any spin or manoeuvre the instructor could think up. Difficult though this could be there were many occasions that I was grateful for the wonderful RAF training. Then, at last, we had guns. We fired at drogues towed behind another aircraft. What an awful job they had. We all felt that they had committed some heinous crime to be so condemned. Each pilot's bullets were greased with a different colour so that hits could be counted. At first, the sheer love of flying possessed me and I pulled her up into a near vertical climb to look over my shoulder to see the target and fall over into a stall turn, and make the attack.
My first strike count was nil...........humiliation. It took a stupidly long time for me to realise that the trick was to climb above and parallel with the towing aircraft, build up flying speed and only then, make the attack. That gave time for a fair burst of fire with good deflection before breaking away to attack again. It was the worst trait of my flying that followed me into and through ops. The sheer joy of feeling at one with the aircraft so often intruded on the object of the operation.
I here quote from a letter home at this time :-
I naturally did not want to tell all! There was plenty more on the party front or for the fleeting 'affairs' that seem to start from nowhere and end in the same way. That can wait. There was quite a bit of socialising and we were almost ordered to attend a dance one Saturday. We had a look at the talent and decided that the beer was more interesting. We spent most of the time in the billiard room knocking it back. The C.O. came in and reminded us of our responsibilities!
We returned to the "ballroom". Finding the pressure building up we decided to 'pump ship'. A friend and I went to the french windows behind the huge curtains. No sooner than we had done so than the band stopped. There was nothing to do. I pushed open the door and solved my problem out into the rain which never seemed to stop. Unfortunately my friend forgot the that the other door was still closed, with the result that when I peeked out of our hiding place there was stream slowly making it's way to the middle of the lovely parquet flooring. We had a quick, boozy conference and decided to make our way as quickly as we could to the front door, rather than stay there until discovered.
We had no sooner made the corner of the house than a naughty beam of light into the blackout hurried our steps no end. The devil looks after his own and we made it into the entrance hall without a rain drop to give us away. The small 'orchestra' had started and the dancing was underway.
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Edward Sparkes ©1998-2002