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George Baker Story and 952 quadron
When Neville Chamberlain returned from Munich in September 1938 clutching his piece of paper “Peace in our time” it felt that War was at hand. Looking back (I was then 18 years of age) I was as patriotic as our 1914 men folk were or (more likely) I had no desire to join the PBI. Although my forbears were all Seafarers I thought a break in tradition would be a good thing so I joined the RAFVR —it turned out that I was only on a short leash.
Nothing happened until the 26th of August of the following year when I was told to report immediately to RAF Bigginhill. Once there, another medical and then kitted out. Although I received a new Uniform, the Greatcoat was very second-hand. In Service parlance it had been the property of a 24 year man. To make matters worse he had been an NCO and the Stripes had been removed leaving the Light Blue shining brightly. I was the first recruit to have been demoted after 5 Days in the Service. The accompanying Cap had a really well polished Badge which, with the Greatcoat remained with me throughout.
Having worked in a Garage I was given the initials DP (Driver Petrol) after my name. I seem to remember that it increased my pay to 2s.3p per day. I was assigned an Albion Petrol Tanker which I had to take to the Dispersal Point of 32 Fighter Squadron in an emergency. The night following the outbreak of War I was on duty with a few other DP’s in the MT office. The Sirens sounded—pandemonium, we all tried to reach the door together. Once outside, my Tanker started first swing and I was away praying that Jerry would not spot my Steed.
Possibly to reduce the damage I was doing to Bollards and other Street Furniture driving an articulated vehicle around Kent I was Posted to Sheerness in November to join 952 Barrage Balloon Squadron which I thought a bit of a `come down` after 32 Fighter Squadron. At Sheerness there were more Drivers than Vehicles so we had little to do. I soon realised that a Balloon Op’s pay was a great deal better than mine and as I was good with ropes and tackle I decided to remuster. Just before Christmas I was taken out to join Drifter “Our Kate” which had just been dragged off the Beach at Caister. Rats and Bugs in abundance. We were taken out on the Trawler, Byng, heavy seas made the transfer very tricky. Rotten conditions, living in the focsle and poor food was not the best of starts. The Winch was a Crossley engined horror bolted on to the Deck with only a tarpaulin as cover. The order to change height on a bad night in a Gale with rain lashing down and the old tub doing her best to dip “the Funnel under” was never greeted with enthusiasm. When the Beast was very cold it could mean taking out the Spark Plugs, passing them down to the Focsle to warm up on the coal shovel, putting them back and then seizing a moment when the Drifter was on a reasonably even keel and giving it a Swing. Having a Magneto rather than a Battery gave it a better chance.
Drifter crews varied—the system was ridiculous—the civilian crew were signed on as Merchant Navy with much better food plus Duty Free’s whilst the RAF crew had basic RAF rations. Some of the civilian crew had endured years of near poverty in the years leading up to the War and the War was a help. They were usually 7 in number and once every 7 weeks one would go home with cases full of food. Others, the great majority were opposite in the extreme. They would take our rations, mix them with their own and give us much better in return and share out the D.F.’s as well. Some months later we were moved to a more luxurious accommodation with a Ford winch with a Starter and below deck!!
Going on leave was a treat but there was always the hazard of evading the Squadron’s new W.O. A real Parade Ground Waller from ages past. He was so polished that some thought that he reflected light from the Sun---or was it t’other way round. Although I polished my Buttons and Badge, my Greatcoat was always a dead give away. The Railway at Sheerness was opposite the Camp and the W.O. would be on the watch. One would enter the Station Yard dreading the words “Hairman, come ere” It could mean one losing the train or worse still, ones leave and spending the night on guard duty at the Camp.
We had a great C.O. in Winco“Popeye”Berryman, a Canadian with only one eye. A number of us received a Posting and we were told to report to his Office. He came into the Yard and said “Do you chaps want to be Posted?” We told him “No” with which he told us to forget it and go back to our respective Boats and he went off to have somebody’s head for allowing it to get thus far.
We had our sad times. The very worst was the loss of the ration boat with Tinkle Bell and his crew and a number of our comrades returning from leave. They `caught` a Magnetic in sight of many of us. `Tinkle` was a great loss as he would buy whatever we needed and I am pleased to have a picture of him in our group which I have marked.
On the rare occasions we tied up in Sheerness we could be lucky and have a spare man sent aboard allowing us to have a night ashore. Although we could spend the night in the Camp we never did—much too hazardous as a) you could be spotted by the aforesaid WO or b) be given a job to do. We would spend the night at Ma & Pa’s where a decent breakfast was available. A night in Sheerness was really something. To start with there was just about every nationality there and fights in the many Pubs were numerous, usually over a “Lady of the Night”. M.P’s.&. SP’s were always around with the Naval Pickets with their White Gaiters walking line astern in the road with their Batons at the ready to quell any fight. Me? I made for the YMCA for `Tea and a Wad`. During my time with B. Flight, I, with colleagues Freddie Watts, Sid Harris & Jonesy Jones were picked out to help make a film describing the Life of a Seaborne Balloon Op. This was made by the RAF Film Unit with “Skeets” Kelly (of whom more later) as the Cameraman. It took a few weeks to make, some on board and some at Pinewood Studios. This, besides being a `bit of a scrounge` had some quite hilarious moments. It was on General Release to the Public and I remember how excited my Mother was when she saw it at Folkestone. It was named Operational Height and I have been fortunate in obtaining a DVD Copy which gives my Family a laugh and for me, Memories. Skeets was a brave and `crazy` chap To obtain a sequence he wanted he had me winch the Balloon down and he made a nest in the cradle into which he climbed. He then had me pay him out and every time I stopped he signalled “UP”. Eventually he was satisfied and signalled to be hauled down. Gaining the Deck he wanted to know why I was looking so scared when he had so obviously enjoyed himself. During that time the Scharnhorst came through the Channel and he went off with a Swordfish Torpedo Squadron to film the attack. Strangely enough he survived the War but was later killed in a flying accident. One great guy.
When I joined the RAFVR in 1938 I said that I would like to train as a Motor Fitter and four years later somebody read the note and I was told off to report to Weeton Camp. What a place, Rain, Snow, Sleet and Wind all at once. The place was a muddy swamp with huts standing on concrete rafts. Although we stoked up the Tortoise stoves the water in the Fire Buckets was always frozen. We as a Nation had been exhorted to eat Carrots to improve our Eyesight and now it was “Eat more Spuds”. We had Potatoes in every possible way. On Sunday we would catch the `bus into Blackpool (do people really go there on holiday?) Once there we would aim for Woolworths which had a restaurant where we still had potatoes but other things as well. After that a Dance to the strains of The Mighty Wurlitzer at the Tower and then catch the `bus back to Camp. There were only so many `busses and missing one would mean an expensive taxi with the driver collecting the fare before moving off! He had been caught before!
Another break in routine—some bright spark realised that we chaps at sea had never had the benefit of square bashing so off we went to Kidbrooke where we came up against WO (Bang-Bang) Cannon. Every command was via a Drumbeat which meant total confusion as we Op’s were rather Bolshie considering ourselves rather superior to the Landlubbers.
Another bright idea was that our big Balloons would be useful in Channel Convoy defence. Q Flight was born. I was told off to take a crew to Portsmouth with other crews and there to inflate Balloons and transfer them to various boats. Yet another old Tub, an ex-French Mine Layer which went by the name of Sioux. The `Chippies` had been busy erecting accommodation below decks and we wondered why. We soon found out. We received orders to set sail and we were at the tail end. Soon the Corvette came racing back to demand that we get a move on. Lt. Church, our Skipper replied that we were doing our best. Later the Corvette appeared again to say “Goodbye” as the Convoy we were protecting could no longer wait for us. It was wonderful weather and we sailed up the Channel all by ourselves. The Skipper constantly asked `Chiefie` ERA to get more steam. Apparently the tubes were blocked and into the Boilers went our Accommodation—we now knew why the Chippies had been so busy! Standing on the Bridge and looking astern we could see by the Wake that we were wandering all over the place. The Steering Gear was completely worn out. Next morning the Sun came up and we could sense the Germans watching us and several times they inspected us but did not attack. Of course HMS Sioux was prepared—on the Bridge Wings were Hotchkiss Machine Guns but completely rusted. On the Forepeak was some sort of Gun without a Breach BUT the RAF were there with their Four Rifles! Some how we arrived at Sheerness so very far behind the rest. An uneventful trip but subsequent trips were a bit different. Sometime after this because of one thing or another I was diagnosed with Tuberculosis and the RAF dispensed with my services.