Wednesday, 11 September 2013

3c. Some of Bob's stories

Bob told us a number of amusing and sometimes self-deprecating stories about his time in the RAFVR and here are some of those stories - at least as my brother, sister and I remember them:

The perils of 'Scrumpy.'
In May 1944 Bob was posted to No. 5 S.o.T.T. (School of Technical Training) at RAF Locking near Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, the home of 'Scrumpy'. He had never been a big drinker and the only alcohol he had drunk was the local brew, Hewitts bitter, which was brewed in Grimsby and was not particularly strong. Unfortunately, he didn't have the benefit of the Urban dictionary's definition of 'Scrumpy'** when he downed several pints of the stuff in a local pub before attempting to cycle back to the base. He left the pub on his bike with a mate on the cross bar and within a few hundred yards and in almost total darkness rode straight into what he claimed was a twelve foot deep irrigation ditch.
**" Rough cider.  Alcohol content not less than 7% by volume. Surprisingly refreshing and can be consumed in vast quantities providing the drinker does not want to use his legs for the next five hours!"

They survived but Bob's problems didn't end there. In their billet the trainees were regularly waking up to find the inside of one of their boots was soaking wet. Several of them had suffered, including Bob, and it became clear that one of them, probably under the influence of 'Scrumpy', was sleepwalking and using a boot from under the bed as a chamber pot. No-one was more disgusted by this antic than Bob, brought up to know right from wrong and to respect his fellow man. Unfortunately, Bob had also grown up in a home without an inside toilet and had always relied on a 'gazunder' for nocturnal urination. Apart from 5 weeks of basic training this would have been the longest he had ever been away from home and to his horror and shame he eventually discovered that he was the mysterious boot-filler.

 Spot the difference?

Weapons training
Even more dangerous than 'Scrumpy' was a Sten gun in the wrong hands. Earlier in the year, whilst at No. 7 I.T.W. near Newquay, Bob and his fellow trainees were expected to undertake some basic firearms training. The Sten gun was a British made sub-machine gun that could be produced cheaply, quickly and in great numbers. First dreamed up in the opening months of the war and then rushed into production in 1940, the Sten weighed three-kilograms, was all-metal and fired eight rounds per second from a horizontally-loaded, 32-round magazine. Each one cost as little as £2 to produce – roughly equal to about £80 today. Nearly 5 million Stens were manufactured before the end of 1945 and the weapon would serve in every theatre, including I.T.W.s of the R.A.F!

Unfortunately, early versions were notoriously unreliable and had two annoying habits - jamming or firing uncontrollably in full automatic mode when 'dropped, jostled or even just set down carelessly' (See "The Venerable Sten - The Allies’ 10 Dollar Submachine Gun"). Apparently British troops learnt to use this second shortcoming to their advantage during urban combat - they could clear a room by simply tossing one or two loaded and cocked Stens through a door or window and they would fire the whole magazine in all directions.

Sten guns, from Mk I (top) to Mk V (bottom)

Bob and his fellow trainees were on a firing range backed by a rocky outcrop or cliff. The instructor told them that the Sten could be set to fire single shots or bursts or even to fire off the whole magazine, this last setting being one they were not to use, for reasons of economy or safety -  he didn't specify which. One by one the men took the machine gun and fired single shots and one burst each at a target against the cliff. One particularly nervous chap took the weapon and squeezed the trigger. As it began to fire he panicked and dropped it to the ground where it continued firing in automatic mode and started to spin, firing bullets in all directions. Several of his mates had to jump wildly into the air as the muzzle of the gun spun towards them but the instructor avoided a tragedy by seizing the weapon and discharging it into the ground.

As if firing a Sten gun wasn't hazardous enough the next stage in their weapons training was learning how to throw a hand grenade. The trainees had to practise using an overarm bowling action to throw a wooden dummy grenade between two posts and over the bar of a structure similar to rugby posts . After a number of attempts all but one of the men had managed to score a “try”. One young man, however, just couldn’t get the hang of it. He repeatedly released the grenade too soon which sent it high into the air, landing only a few yards away. After a lot of practice he eventually managed to achieve a couple of throws where the grenade followed the correct trajectory. The session was to finish with each trainee throwing one live grenade but, as so much time had been taken to get them all up to the required standard, they were told  to come back the next day to do their “live” throws.

There was to be a parade or some other formal occasion  the following day so they all turned up bright and early in their “best blues”. In turn they took their “live” throws without incident, bending low behind a pile of sandbags as each grenade exploded. The young man who had struggled the previous day confidently took his grenade, adopted the correct stance, pulled the pin and launched the grenade - almost vertically high into the air. It landed just a few yards the other side of the sandbags. Almost as one the instructor and the trainees threw themselves flat on their faces in the mud. The grenade exploded with an ear-splitting bang, some of the sandbags disintegrated and everyone was showered with mud and grass. Bob didn't say if they managed to clean themselves up in time for the parade.

Fish for tea
In the cookhouse an officer always had to ask if there were any complaints about the food. The young airmen learned quickly that that it was a good idea to say nothing as anyone who did complain might be faced with peeling vast quantities of potatoes or scrubbing dozens of encrusted pots and pans. Bob was no exception until the day they served up rancid herrings, boiled, un-gutted and with their heads on and he decided enough was enough. When the officer made the usual bored request Dad stood up and said “Yes. I have a complaint.” Apparently you could have heard  a pin drop as the officer walked the length of the mess to confront Bob and demanded to know the nature of his complaint.
A fish auction in Grimsby in 1945

 “It’s the fish.” said Bob.
“And what’s wrong with the fish?” came the reply “There are people in civvy street who would give their back teeth to be able to eat fresh fish.”
“Well, for a start it’s not fresh. It’s not prepared properly and it’s not cooked properly. In fact it’s inedible.”
The irate officer demanded to know what qualified Bob to pass judgement on the cooking abilities of the catering staff and how he knew so much about fish.

“I’m from Grimsby,” he said and went on to tell the officer that everyone in Grimsby knew about fish and in his own family there had been fishermen through the ages both in Great Yarmouth, where his grandfather, also called Bob Jay, had his own business in the fishing industry, and in Grimsby, where his brother Fred had worked on the fish docks before the War. Not only that, but his future father-in-law had been a trawler skipper since WW1. We don't know what happened to Bob after the incident but the officer did have all the fish sent back to the kitchens and binned.

Hector and Hercules.
After the war the ministry was unsure what to do with thousands of airmen and ground crew who were surplus to requirements and for a month in the summer of 1945 Bob was based at RAF Burn, near Selby,Yorkshire, where he was put to work on a local farm. Many of his fellow reservists were city boys and after months of hostile encounters over Germany were ill-prepared for their next challenge. On the farm there were two huge boars named Hector and Hercules who not only terrorised the airmen but were also in competition for the affections of a particularly attractive sow.
At some point the sow had to be moved elsewhere on a tractor-drawn trailer and in a scenario similar to the land rover being pursued by a T Rex in Jurassic Park one of the boars chased it all the way down the farm track scattering Bob and his terrified comrades in all directions. One consolation - Bob's wife and mother were very pleased with the large package of lard that he took home on his next leave.

Community cycles
Bob had his bike “posted” to him by rail at one point during his training because of the large distances between locations on the base. However, most of the trainees appear to have had little respect for the notion of private property. The first one out would grab the first bike he could find and pedal off and Bob's was constantly disappearing and then reappearing a day or two later. The notion of 'community cycles' was very popular in the RAF, long before 'Boris bikes' were thought of, unless you had your own bike and invariably had to walk.

The Haka
Everyone nowadays is familiar with the Haka and will at least have seen it on television but in 1945 very few people in Britain were even aware of its existence. When Bob was posted to No.75 (NZ) Squadron in 1945 he was not only introduced to it but also had the tremendous privilege to witness it performed by Maori members of the squadron in one of the local pubs.

Another RNZAF Haka, probably in Canada (from the late Dave Howlett's collection)

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