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Life in the RAF by Ken Allinson

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.

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