Royal Air Force service personnel during the Second World War.
In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project war veteran Ben Dixon reminisced about his time in the RAF and in Prisoner of War camps. This is his story, in his own words:
Benjamin Dixon, born 3rd April 1921. I was 18 when the war started. I had been working for a jobbing builder firm in Park Road called Suggitt. In June 1939 his son mentioned that had I looked in the newspaper, they were applying for wireless operators, air gunners, and observers and pilots to join the RAF Voluntary Reserve. So I went down and they accepted me. Our headquarters used to be in the old Market in the caretakers room, and we used to go up twice a week for practice. We used to do a little bit of Morse code and things like that and they told us all about the sights for the machine guns and things. Then we moved into Surtees Street, I think. There was a public house there, the Volunteer Arms, and we were right across the road in a big house. We were doing a guard duty outside and a bloke came running out of the Volunteer Arms across the way and said “the war’s started!” They’d just got the announcement at 11.
About two or three weeks later we got our actual call up. We all amalgamated down the town. We didn’t have a full uniform. Some had a shirt, some had trousers, some had a jacket – part of the uniform. Only what they handed you out, so you took whatever there was for the time being. We went to Prestwick in Scotland. We stayed on Prestwick aerodrome and we got a couple of free flights on aircraft just to give us practice. After about three weeks they posted us to Adamton House, a big mansion right on the outskirts. A unit came from Scotland, and a unit came from Hamble, down south. They converted the stables into classrooms and we used to do our Morse and our theory down there. Then we were posted down to Digby, a big fighter operational ‘drome. They didn’t know what to do with us. They stuck us in this billet and nobody knew we were there for a fortnight. Somebody found us and then they gave us jobs washing up and clearing the runways of snow. We got all the jobs that were going yet we were supposed to be trainee aircrew. They put us on guard and we’d never even seen a rifle. Then they had to take us and show us how to manage the guns. The chief armourer said “I’ll take you every day and show you how to take the machine guns to pieces and put them back together again. So we got a very good training there. Then we were posted to Cranwell to do another radio course. Then they sent you to Dorset to RAF Warmwell where we did our gunnery course in old-fashioned planes called Harrows. When we were down there the lads were coming back from Dunkirk. What a pitiful state they were in. It gives you your first glimpse of what war was like, seeing them coming off the boats. Then we went to Benson and we had to do an operational training unit. You would go up with an observer and a pilot and train as a crew. It was a way in to the operational squadrons. Then we went to an operational squadron near Nottingham, and they were Fairey Battles. It was a bomber aircraft like a big version of a Spitfire. There was the pilot’s position and a navigator could get in front and then there was the wireless opps and a gunnery. It was open - you pulled your canopy back and then you were out in the open air. We did a couple of trips then. The barges were building up ready for the invasion so we used to do trips over there and bomb the barges. It was only across the Channel and back, like, it wasn’t too risky. We still got the flack and suchlike. I was a wireless operator/air gunner.
They did away with the Fairey Battles and brought in the Wellington aircraft. We were just about to go operational, flying in the Wellingtons and I got posted. I got sent to a conversion course first at RAF Finningley. I was supposed to practice on the Hampden aircraft – never got on it yet. They were on circuits and bumps. They used to lose quite a lot of people on circuits and bumps. What it was, they used to train the pilot to take off and land at night, but he always had to have somebody else with him, you see, so they used to take a wireless operator or something like that. So if he went for a burton, you went for a burton. Then they posted me down to Lindholme, and that was an operational squadron, 50 squadron, actually it’s a well-known squadron. Some of the Dambuster blokes were trained on there before they went onto special squadrons. I joined this crew, we had two pilots, but one did the navigation and one did the actual flying. There was the wireless operator and the gunner, the navigator and the pilot in the Hampden. As I say, I’d never been in a Hampden, they said “report tonight” and we was on ops. Mind it was a reasonable one, the first one I did, we went to the channel ports. We were getting one every third night or so. And then we got one to go to Hanover and we did another one somewhere else, then we got a trip to go to Bordeaux, the River Gironde.
We had to go down country to St Evals where the navy loaded us up with the mines, cos we were going what they called “gardening”, laying mines. We got to the mouth of the River Gironde. In those days we had no instruments for navigating. You had to draw it out and take the wind off and everything. The wireless operator could get a bearing out from England, but when you got so far out the signal didn’t go far enough. So it all depended on the navigator. Anyway, we dropped the mine in the mouth of the river and the pilot then said “we’ll go in and drop the bombs” - there was like an oil works off the shore. Everything was so quiet for a bombing raid, I never saw a ha’porth of flack come up or anything. I think we must have been the first in. On the run in, all at once there was a violent shudder. The wireless operator shouted “hello, pilot, what’s the matter?” but we never heard anything so we thought “there’s something up the creek now, like”. So the laddo jettisoned the hood at the back, but we couldn’t bail out cos we didn’t know what height we were. Then all at once we hit – just a violent crunch and all the aircraft just started to rip up and fires were going, everything sparkles. All I could think of was “he hasn’t pressed that button to say bombs gone”. Actually it was silly, because if they were going to go they would probably go as we hit the deck. But I couldn’t get out until he got out, he completely blocked my way. Cos the way I got in, that had gone, all crunched up on the floor. So he started to get out. I started to get up but my foot wouldn’t go. I pulled like merry blazes. My flying boots must have been a bit bigger than I should have had, so the one that was trapped came off. So he got out on the wing and I got out. It was pitch black. We hadn’t heard from the lads at the front. When I tried to walk off my leg just went. I had to crawl off the wing and things were setting afire then, she was starting to blaze. I clambered away about 25 yards from it. Couldn’t go back to help them – I think they were dead in any case already.
We were in sand dunes. I sat there looking at the aircraft burning and my leg was aching like merry hell. I couldn’t put it down at all. I couldn’t see the laddo anywhere. Then I saw two Jerries coming across with rifles. I put me hands up, I thought “I don’t want to get shot – I can’t run away”. They weren’t very keen about being out in the raid, I don’t think. They came over and dragged me along, they weren’t worried about whether I could walk or not. We went to a Nissan hut, and there was the other lad. So that’s how we got taken prisoner. Neither of us could speak German. About half an hour passed and in came a big, tall, slim German officer. He even had the monocle in his eye. You couldn’t have got the more perfect example of a German. He could speak perfect English. You can’t give them information so it was just a question of who you were like. They sent for transport. I couldn’t walk and they weren’t going to carry me so they got a wheelbarrow, put me in and made the laddo push it to the cars! They put me in one car and him in the other. They took me to a big house up the road and there was a medical man who put a splint on me leg, and that eased the pain a good bit. He actually brought me a bar of chocolate. There was a German guard about my age looking after me, so I gave him some of it. I was there a few hours then they took me to the Florence Nightingale hospital in Bordeaux. Then the proper doctors did me leg properly. I had actually broke the tibia and the fibia. The nurses were French (I couldn’t speak French, either) and the Sisters were German. They looked after me and let me write home.
I was taken from there by aircraft to Paris. On board there was a young lad, a German fitter, and he’d broke his leg. We had a good talk on the aircraft, the lad talked about his sister who lived in Oxford. She would have been interred, I should imagine. He was a canny lad. Then they took me to a great big hospital in Paris. It had all the big swastika banners outside. On the way up, there was the laddo, and he gave us a wave. They put me in a big room on my own. They were telling me how they were winning the war. They would ply me with cigarettes on the point that Dunkirk was just over and we had left all our cigarettes in the trucks. So they had more Capstans and Players than we had! It was all a means of propaganda. As I came out of hospital they took me for a couple of hours to an Intelligence Headquarters, and there they interrogated you and asked you what squadron you were with and what target you were bombing and all this kind of stuff. Then they give you a form, British Red Cross, and said “fill this in”. when you look at it, it would say your name, number, date of birth and all that. Then it would say “what is your squadron? Where did you fly from?” It was a con! You didn’t have to be brilliant to recognise it was a con. They had put it under the name of the Red Cross. I think they just tried it in case you were under the weather you might do something silly like that. They tell you stories and you are that bamboozled, you have to be so careful.
Then they sent me from there to Dulag Luft and there they put you in a sweatbox. It was like a little room and they used to turn the heating up, leave you overnight and interrogate you in the morning. But they got very little out of people. I wasn’t there a week and they posted me to the Black Forest and they put me in a convent. The nuns run it. It was a big house with grounds. There I was convalescent with me foot, and in there was one or two of our lads. We all used to sit at one big table to have our meal, and they didn’t cook a bad meal, the nuns. There was a Wing Commander there, he was only twenty-two. Every part of his body had been burned. He had no ears, his lips had gone, his nose had gone, his hands were webs. His body – here he had a tyre, here he had a tyre, where the fat had rolled. How he survived – the pain alone must have been out of this world.
I was there a little while then we went to Stalag Luft 1. Then we were pushed on cattle trucks and taken to Stalag Luft 3. That’s the one where the Great Escape went from. But that was in the Officers’ Compound. We were in the Mens’ Compound. We were one of the first ones to go to that camp. Then they asked for personnel to open up Stalag Luft 1 again. A lot of us had been at Stalag Luft 1 and we liked it. You could see outside, not much but you could see outside, but Stalag Luft 3 it was just complete trees, you saw nothing but a forest. You never saw the outside world, a horrible sensation. I was there about six months and they brought out this idea about going back to Stalag Luft 1 and there was about fifty or a hundred of us said we would go back. Fortunately it wasn’t too bad because they stuck us in the officers’ compound and in there they actually had cold showers. Then I got a job in the cookhouse, there was about ten of us with three big pressure cookers and we used to cook for the whole camp. There was cabbage and taties in the skins and a tiny bit of horsemeat. We had a German bloke in charge of us to make sure we didn’t steal. Then they were going to move all the NCOs again to a place right up near the Prussian border, Stalag Luft 6 I think it was, but they wanted the cooking staff to stay behind. I thought, “I’ve got a fair number here, I’m happy. You don’t know what you’re walking into.” Some of the blokes weren’t very happy that we stayed behind, probably because they never got the chance to stay behind. It was the best move I ever made, because those lads went to Stalag Luft 6 and when it was getting towards the end of the war they evacuated that camp, they tramped down to the middle of Germany and when they got there they tramped them back up again, our lads were strafing them, the food was getting short and quite a number of them never survived the journey. So I was glad I stayed.
Across the road from us, they had put the Russians in there. So when they moved them out they had to decontaminate it, cos they used to die like flies from typhus. We used to try and help them if we could, they were in a terrible state. So then our officers started coming back into their quarters and we moved back into our original rooms. Over there we had no indoor wash facilities. We had to wash outside, the toilets were outside as well. Then they started to bring the Americans in. There was so many of them and they used to segregate the compounds, so there were parts of the compounds and some of the Americans that I never saw. There was about the ten of us cooks in this little room – we were cooking for the Americans now as well. Eventually we got another five or six of their NCOs came to help us cos there was that many, over about 8 000 in the camp then.
I was there for four years altogether in all the camps. The Russians took it over when the war ended and the Americans came and took us out. Typical Americans – we were the first prisoners of war in that camp and we were the last prisoners of war to leave it. They took all their troops out and we were the last to go.More detail »
Dorothy Robson was born during a cold afternoon on 10th November 1919. Her family lived at number 14 Redcar Road in Guisborough. Her father, Shafto Robson, had recently returned from service in the First World War where he fought in the trenches in Belgium, working with poison gas. He was a qualified pharmacist and was manager in John Willy Franks’s Chemists shop in the Market Place. Her mother was Myra Lily Robson (née Moore) who came from Stockton-on-Tees. Her sister Norma was just over three years old when she was born.
Dorothy and Norma grew up together in Guisborough. They went to school at Westgate Private School run by their teacher Miss Dutton. They experienced the dawn of radio broadcasting, listening to the distant voices and music from London through the earphones of a crystal radio. Dorothy was keen to listen to classical music and they spent many hours walking on the nearby hills.
In 1927, Dorothy’s father felt that the time was right for him to obtain a business of his own and he decided to buy a Chemist’s shop in Hartlepool, then in the County of Durham. The business was initially located in High Street though later it was transferred to new premises in Middlegate. Working hours were long as the shop opened at eight each morning and remained open until 7.30 each week-day and nine on Saturday evening. Outside of shop hours there was work to be done filling bottles, making up various medicines and potions and developing photographs.
Dorothy and Norma changed schools, moving to Henry Smith School. Education in the school was formal with the notorious Joe Moor as Headmaster. Standards in all subjects were high and Dorothy pursued her studies through the Sixth Form, gaining a Higher Certificate that enabled her to continue her studies at University.
There was a lively social life in Hartlepool with many parties and dances. Much of this was focused on the Borough Hall, which was the social centre for the town. Ballroom dancing was popular. Boys would ask for a dance and then at the end of the dance would escort their partner back to their seat. Dorothy was always popular and was never lacking a partner.
In October 1937, Dorothy began her studies in Physics at Leeds University. It was still quite unusual for girls to study at university in those days and most unusual for them to study a subject such as Physics. She enjoyed her studies and her social life. She was an attractive girl who involved herself in University events such as the Rag Week and end of term balls. She finally qualified with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1940.
The country was now at war and Dorothy was determined to play her part in the defence of her country. She applied to join the R.A.F., but she was two inches too short and was rejected. She finally was accepted to work for the Ministry of Aircraft Production and was based at Farnborough to the south west of London. Dorothy’s work was top secret. Even her parents were unaware of the nature of her work. Her skills were applied to the development of bomb-sights that could be used to deliver more accurately the loads of explosives onto enemy territory. She became located at airfields in Northern Bomber Command and spent most of her time in the North of England. She was always popular with the aircrews and was given affectionate nick-names such as “Bomb Sight Bertha” and “The Girl with the Laughing Eyes”. Each morning she would meet the airmen who had flown the night before and debrief them to learn from their experience of using the bomb-sight.
During wartime life becomes precious but unpredictable and people become fatalistic about their futures, often depending on the occult to predict the future. Dorothy became involved in such activities. During one such session, a group of friends were using a planchette or Ouija board. They sat round a table covered with a sheet of paper. Dorothy rested a finger on the board of the planchette. The planchette gathered speed and skimmed around the board, they laughed and joked as it traced its fateful message “Adjust the bomb sight. You will die”. Again and again the same message. No-one took the message seriously but neither could anyone understand how it came to be.
On 3rd November 1943, just a week before her 24th birthday, Dorothy was working at the airfield at Holme on Spalding Moor in the East Riding of Yorkshire, fitting and testing a bombsight on a Halifax bomber. She took her place in the nose of the plane. The plane took off and flew low over the Yorkshire Wolds. After a short time, fog engulfed the plane which lost height and crashed onto the moors near Market Weighton. Three members of the crew were killed outright, two others died later and Dorothy was mortally wounded. Although she was rushed to hospital, she died before her parents arrived. According to her wishes, her body was cremated and her ashes scattered from the air from a small trainer plane that she had sometimes flown under supervision.
Fred Hall a Halifax bomber navigator with 76 Squadron, now of Harrogate writes:
“Now I find it difficult to pen these words - I was the navigator of the aircraft in which Miss Robson was killed. On the morning of the 3/11/43 I was preparing charts for operations that night. When it was decided to take up the aircraft for an air test. Being a new aircraft it had not flown before on operations. As I was engaged with charts the pilot decided that because Miss Robson would be checking the bombsight down in the nose (where I sat at the plotting table) he would not call on me to fly. The duration of the flight would only be about 30 minutes within the vicinity of the airfield. The morning in question was hazy with intermittent 8/10s cloud. Tragically for reasons unknown, the aircraft crashed at Enthorpe 3 miles north east of Market Weighton. All 6 members of the crew were killed and Miss Robson.
As you can imagine I was devastated because we had flown with Coastal Command on U boat patrol over the Bay of Biscay and carried out 11 operations over Germany.”
Tributes to Dorothy came from far and wide as newspaper articles recorded her death and celebrated her life and her contribution to the war effort. In 1993 the Hartlepool Mail published an article about Dorothy and most recently author Peter Mason mentioned Dorothy in his book “Wings over Linton”. Also in 1993 two stained glass windows in the Holme on Spalding Moor church, near the crash site, were commemorated to 76 Squadron and Dorothy’s name appears in the book of remembrance there. It had been hoped that a permanent memorial could be established in the town for people like Dorothy who gave their lives for their country during the war but, because they were not serving in the Forces, there was no system for marking their sacrifice. Dorothy's death, whilst she was involved in important government war work, was never formally or publicly honoured because she was not actually a member of the armed forces. This situation changed, however, following much lobbying and hard work by local people. In June 2001, plaques listing Dorothy's name and those of many other Hartlepool people who had died in service of their country were placed on the town's war memorials in Victoria Road and the Headland.More detail »
Bertram Forstad was a life-long RAF-man, reaching the rank of Chief Technician. Apart from a brief spell as a "civvie", which he couldn't come to terms with and re-joined, he essentially spent all his life in the RAF, eventually being presented to the Queen for his services. His wife served in the WAAF.More detail »
In 2005 Hartlepool's Museum and Library Services worked together on a project called 'Their Past, Your Future', which commemorated the part played by local people in the Second World War. As part of the project war veteran Ken Allinson reminisced about his time serving in the Royal Air Force. This is his story, in his own words:
I was born in November 1920 in Faversham Terrace, Ferryhill. I was 19 when the war broke out, and it was a shock, more than anything, because when Chamberlain came back waving his little paper we thought we had won the day. It didn’t hit us really when it was first announced. Not in a small village, you know, I think it was more in the towns. But at home it was just like an ordinary village. I mean we all went out to work every day and the youngsters played around.
I joined the Air Force, and I’ll be quite honest here, I joined because they were just starting to call people up. They had to go in the forces and the majority of them were being called up for the Green Howards and the Durham Light Infantry and I didn’t fancy all the marching. So I thought “right, I am going to Old Elvet at Durham and I am going to volunteer for the Air Force”. I nearly failed because unfortunately I’ve got a little bit of flat feet. But, I passed Grade One and I got in. I served for six years, from February 1940 to April 1946.
When I first joined I did a weeks training at Blackpool. That was marching up and down, getting used to carrying a rifle, etc. They were what we call P14s, and they were Ross’ heavy rifles. After the week we were supposed to be fully trained and we were sent to Hullavington. I was told I could have the rank of sergeant if I joined the Royal Air Force Regiment, but I said “no”, I didn’t want to. So after that I did a course on armaments at Weeton, I think it was, just outside Blackpool. After that I did another course as a fitter/armourer and that’s what I became in the Air Force. So I was working on all sorts of aircraft you see. While I was at Hullavington we were playing cricket one afternoon, and looked up and said “ Oh, there’s one of our planes coming over”. We hadn’t been in the Air Force very long then. It came over right enough. Turned out it was a Jerry and we watched the bomb doors opening and the bombs came out flat and then started down so we ran away. Instead of running towards the plane we ran away. The bombs followed us, killed fifteen.
Another time we were under canvass, about ten of us sleeping in a tent and we had one lad came from Birmingham and he was an absolute bully. He used to swear, gamble, women – he used to treat them like dirt. And we were on guard duty, it was two hours on, four hours off. So when it wasn’t our turn we thought we would play cards. He said “you can play but no gambling”. So one of the lads swore and he said “cut out the swearing.” Then when it was his turn to go on guard duty, he knelt down and prayed. Half an hour later a lad from Middlesbrough accidentally fired his rifle and shot and killed the lad that was standing next to me, and he was the bully. To me it looks as though he knew he was going to be killed. Strange thing.
I was sent to Filey while I was waiting for the overseas posting, and a strange thing happened there. Filey at this time (1942) was the number one training camp for the Royal Air Force Regiment, and they used grounds that used to be Butlins holiday camp. The swimming pools had been made into parade grounds, all cemented and everything, and the ranges were on top of the cliffs. Anyway, we got a message that the Gneissau and the Scharnhorst, which were two of Germany’s big battleships, had broken out of port and were steaming past. So we had to put detonators into hand grenades and the RAF regiment had to stand on the cliffs at Filey and Flamborough Head, and as the two battleships went past throw their grenades at the ships. I’ve never heard anything so daft, but of course we had to do it.
While I was at Filey the RAF Regiment were being trained by the Black Watch and we weren’t allowed on the range at that time. My job was to go round all the land bases checking the guns to make sure they were firing. One day this sergeant in the Black Watch shot himself in the shoulder with a Lewis gun. So after that they said “right, there must be a fitter/armourer on the range every time the range is being used”. So we had a field day, to be honest. We used to take a book and a deckchair and sit on the range until we were wanted. So it was a bit of a holiday.
I was posted to Africa at a place called RAF Jui, just outside of Freetown. It’s in the swamps, actually. There I worked on Catalina flying boats and Short Sunderland flying boats, because we used to put the bombs and ammunition in the guns, and they used to go out after submarines. And rather strange but in 1943 West Africa Force got the only VC that its ever won and that was won by a Flying Officer Twigg. He went to bomb a U-boat. The U-boat fired back and hit him. The Catalina was crashing, and he headed it at the U-boat and hit it and sank it, and he was posthumously awarded the VC.
We were more or less told that we were coming back to be part of D-Day. Unfortunately we didn’t get back in time. The boat coming back was the Bermuda Queen. It was a luxury liner, I mean they had a cinema, snooker table, everything on board. A beautiful boat, but exactly the opposite to what we went out on. It was called the Highland Brigade…one of those boats used to carry carcasses, a frozen meat boat. We slept in hammocks slung between the hooks they used to hang the meat on. If we had been torpedoed we were never meant to get out, because we were battened down at night and the officers were all above and we were all down below. We went out in 1942. We hit the Irish Sea. The next thing I knew it was like being in a tea cup, and you were at the bottom of the tea cup and the sides of the tea cup all round was dirty green sea, and then you went up one side, you got to the top to go down the other. The rudder and everything was out, and suddenly away and then down it went. We were practically all seasick for nearly a week.
Anyway, coming back we were supposed to join a convoy at Gibraltar. We got as far as Gibraltar. Some stupid fool there fired a gun, hit our boat just above the waterline so we had to wait until that was repaired. We watched the convoy sail past so we had to come back on our own. So we were two days too late for D-Day. But we were fast enough to come back on our own, and we weren’t attacked by U-boats at all. We came back up the Clyde and we disembarked there. We walked 200 yards on to the train. Straight down to Blackpool again. When we got back we hadn’t time to get mixed in with the D-Day landings. So I was up in Woolworths in Blackpool listening to the news with some of my mates, having a coffee when they announced D-Day.
To be quite honest I thought it must be fate, missing D-Day. I wasn’t meant to go. I could have been killed. I had an uncle, he put one foot on the beach, he got shot in the leg straight away – straight back to England. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to take part, but at the same time it could have been fate.
On VE-Day I was at Finningley, just outside of Doncaster, and we had a party and a big parade. But we still thought about the lads that were left in Japan, because I had a good friend that was a prisoner of war there and when he came home I think he weighed about four and a half stone. So we did a bit of celebrating, but you couldn’t celebrate too much because you had friends that were still at war. But we had a good party on VJ-day…yes.More detail »
Royal Airforce Sergeant; the single wing implies he is a Navigator.
Information from Peter Dunn identifies this gentleman as his uncle Robert Reed, who sadly passed away in October 1944 on a training flight flying out of RAF WINTHORPE in Lincolnshire. Hi name is on the RAF wooden memorial tablet which is in the museum on the Hartlepool Marina.
He is buried in Stranton Cemetery.More detail »