102 (Ceylon) Squadron

Tentate et perficite (Attempt and Achieve)

Flying Officer Basil Spiller DFC

Main Page - Halifax to Liverpol - Stuttgart and More - Goodbye 102 Squadron

Halifax to Liverpool

In May 1942, Basil Spiller began airforce training at RAAF Sandgate near Brisbane in Queensland Australia. Further postings within Australia included the No 1 Air Observer’s Station at Cootamundra, the bombing and gunnery school at Evans Head and the astro navigation station at Parkes, all in New South Wales. In early March 1943, Basil travelled to San Francisco aboard the SS Mormacsea and then by train across Canada to Halifax, Nova Scotia. In this chapter from his autobiography, Basil talks about the final leg of his journey across the North Atlantic Ocean to England.

“Halifax was the embarkation port for the United Kingdom.

Halifax was the end of the earth, I reckon. It was midsummer and it rained every day. It was a dreary place and the sun never came out. The only thing that I can remember about Halifax was the twenty-four hour crap game that was situated in the men’s toilet. Every time you took a leak you were able to roll the dice. It did not stop for twenty-four hours.

For two weeks we never did anything in Halifax. We got no leave and stayed at the place. It was a dreary couple of weeks. We walked down the main street and back again but it was a dreary place. Nothing ever happened there.

In the First World War an ammunition ship, fully loaded, had blown up in Halifax harbour and devastated the town. So we were very apprehensive that it might happen again because the harbout was loaded with ships and the trans-Atlantic convoys used to leave from Halifax. It was a very big port and the threat of U-Boats was constantly in our minds.

After two weeks we boarded a huge ship called the Louis Pasteur. This was its common name. It was a French ship of about thirty thousand tons - a fast, converted troop ship and it was being used for that trans-Atlantic run ferrying troops. It seemed huge to us. It was fully equipped with mess decks and Harry describes mess decks fully in his diary. You lived and slept and ate in the confined quarters with about seven foot ceilings. You were allowed to go to the latrines twice a day. The food was always stew or things that they could ladle out of a big urn that they would bring. The sleeping quarters consisted of a mixture of hammocks that were permanently slung and mattresses on the floor. It was a pretty miserable existence. I had a mattress on the floor. We were well below the water line and we would have had no hope of survival if we had been torpedoed. We were thinking about that all of the time. We had to stay there all of the time. On one occasion we were allowed on deck and we found the whole of the five thousand odd troops were on deck at the same time. It was crowded and there were Crown and Anchor and Crap games being organized by the hard-headed sergeants who were interested in making money and taking money off the poor unsuspecting troops. It was a con game. Nobody wins except the organizer of the game in Crown and Anchor.

We zigzagged all the time. The ship went flat out. So continually we were leaning one way or the other. It would only go on a certain course for five minutes and then it would keel over violently to the other side. They were worried about U-Boats. It was the height of the U-Boat campaign. It was May-June ’43.

Eventually after four days we arrived in the Irish Channel and steamed into Liverpool. That was the first part of the UK that we sighted.”

 

Marston Moor – 3rd March 1944

From Liverpool Basil travelled by train to Brighton where he stayed at the Grand Hotel for eight weeks while he awaited posting. There he was told that he would be a navigator and he was sent to the 4th Air Familiarization Unit at West Freugh in Scotland. At the AFU he became friends with another Australian, Harry Brabin, a wireless operator, and they decided that to crew up together. They were sent to 27 Operational Training Unit at Lichfield, to be trained on Vickers Wellingtons to operational standard. They crewed up with three other Australians, Bill Rabbitt, a pilot, Don McLean, a bomb aimer, and Sandy Concannon, a rear gunner. After Lichfield they were posted to a 1652 Conversion Unit at Marston Moor and began training on Handley Page Halifaxes. Soon after their arrival their crew was finalised with the addition of John Allen, a flight engineer, and Charlie Hood, a mid-upper gunner both from England.

In this chapter from his autobiography, Basil talks about training at Marston Moor.

On the 4th of March 1943, after about three or four weeks we left Driffield, we were posted to Marston Moor which was now ready to receive us. Bill’s diary says that he met up with me in York on the 3rd of March and we went to Betty’s Bar. The CO was Group Captain Cheshire and Harry describes him. He became a Master Bomber when he left Marston Moor and resumed operations.

From Marston Moor we used to go on leave to Leeds and York. We were well known in the bars in both cities.

Billets

Harry describes Marston Moor. It was a very dispersed aerodrome. It was a mile between our sleeping quarters and our sergeants’ mess. It was very muddy and a totally bad place to get posted to.

The billets at Marston Moor were Nissan huts and there were non-commissioned crews to a hut. It was the same on the squadron. They were pretty standard. A Nissan hut was made out of corrugated iron. In the middle of the hut they had a pot-belly stove and that was the only furniture. We hung our clothes on pegs attached to the walls. There were five or six beds along both sides. Bill Rabbitt’s crew would occupy the beds on one side and the other crew was on the other side.

Bill wasn’t there. He had his own quarters. There were no showers there. The ablution hut was a mile down the road. If you wanted to have a leak or do a number-two there were probably latrines. There’d be a cluster of these huts, maybe a dozen of them in the same area and there would be a latrine attached to that cluster. If you wanted to have a shower you had to trek a mile down the road to near the sergeants’ mess where they had an ablution hut where they had hot and cold showers.

Back on the horse

We only did two more cross countries after that. The next day they sent us up on another trip. You know the old story about falling off a horse. You get straight back and try again. That’s what they did to us. If you look at my log book it says: “Forced landing! Pranged!” That was on the 28th of April. And on the 29th they sent us up on the identical exercise - Exercise 21. So on the day after they sent us up on another cross country that lasted five and three quarter hours. On the night of the 30th we did exactly the same exercise again. It was a progession. An operation length training exercise done first during the day and then successfully completed at night. They were cross countries and purely navigational exercises mainly in the operation of H2S. Don and I were operating it.

At Marston Moor we were introduced to H2S for the first time. We had to become efficient in the operation of H2S and be confident that we could handle it because we used it right through operations.

WAFs on board

I mentioned earlier that we used to take the WAAFs up in the plane with us. We only did that on the squadron when we got our own plane. Because there was too much supervision on the OTU’s but less on the squadron. It was all laissez-faire on the squadron. Very relaxed discipline. As long as you were there to fly, you could do what you liked.

Then on the 2nd of May we were posted to Number 102 Squadron at Pocklington and we left Marston Moor the next day. It was an RAF squadron. We had all types. Canadian, most of all RAF types, English people, Scottish, New Zealanders, Australian and some South African. It was pretty multicultural.

 

RAF Pocklington - Operation 1, 22/23rd May, 1944 – Orleans

In this chapter Basil’s crew, now members of 102 Squadron Pocklington, leave on their first bombing operation to Orleans in France.

Orleans: 128 aircraft - 108 Halifaxes, 12 Lancasters, 8 Mosquitos - of Nos 4 and 8 Groups. 1 Halifax lost. Most of the bombs fell on the passenger station and the railway-repair workshops.

Total effort for the night: 1,023 sorties, 34 aircraft (3.3 per cent) lost.

RAF Bomber Command campaign diary, 22/23 May 1944

On the 22nd of May 1944, we did our first flight over enemy territory from Pocklington. We flew in P-Peter and it was a brand new Halifax, Mark 3. The target was the marshalling yards at Orleans in central France. At that stage the favourite target was marshalling yards, to restrict the movements of German reinforcements prior to the coming of the D Day landings.

I don’t remember seeing anything until we got to the target. When I parted the blackout curtains to the nose – they were there to stop light from my navigator’s light from being seen outside – I would’ve switched off my lamp – I poked my head out because it was my first operation and I was curious. I parted the curtains and I saw the target illuminated by a ring of parachute flares. They lit up the target like day. The Pathfinders had released parachute flares that hung in the sky and illuminated the target very well. I never saw this manoeuvre repeated again. On this night it was most successful. We clobbered the target very successfully and headed for home.

We bombed from eighteen thousand feet and couldn’t miss. Don and Bill were a great bombing team. Don was an exceptional bomb aimer and Bill was an exceptional pilot, so they made a good team. Bill responded to all of Don’s instructions. He’d be saying, “Left, left. Steady! Right, steady! Hold it there! A bit more left. Left, left, steady! That’s bang on! Bombs gone!”

While Don was saying these things, Bill was concentrating on holding the exact course that Don was asking him to. When Don said, “Left. Left. Steady!” Bill would make a minute correction to port. All the time Don was endeavouring to keep the target in his bombsight. Bill was making those little corrections by applications to the rudder and joystick. The joystick was like a wheel – a half wheel - about a third of a segment of a circle, divided into two. He had it about chest high and he had both his feet in the pedals and he would be adjusting as pilots do. I was a mere navigator so I didn’t know how to fly a plane but he did and he did his utmost to fly as Don instructed. If Don said left he would instinctively go left just like that. A minute correction. Not a big correction.

On the bombing run. Don would have been instructing Bill to make corrections by “Left, left steady! Right, steady!” that was the way they conveyed the instructions to the pilot. The plane was straight and level. Bill was holding it like that. The target is in the bombsight. It is drifting down the bombsight and when it gets to the crosshairs, he releases the bombs by pressing the teat that he had in his hands. Then he calls out, “Bombs gone!” then Bill held the plane on the exact course that he was flying for about thirty seconds while the P4 camera turned over and did a succession of line overlaps photography. We dropped 8.500 pound of bombs that night.

While all this was going on I was preparing the next course for Bill that he would fly the aircraft on once the bombing was completed. The bombing run wasn’t completed until after the photographs had been taken. That’s why it was important to hold the same course and speed until after the photographs had been taken. That determined whether you got what they called an aiming point. The last frame of the photograph denoted the target. I’d be preparing to tell Bill when he had finished the bombing run that he would have to alter course to so and so degrees and fly at such and such an airspeed at such and such a height according to the flight plan.

I don’t know what was going on outside the plane but Bill writes this in his dairy: “I was trying to concentrate like mad to fly well for (Don) with things banging on both sides of us.” There must have been a bit of flak. I can’t remember any of that. Remember I was in the aircraft and had a job to do. I couldn’t afford to gawk around. If there were nearby flak bursts I would have heard them and if I did I can’t remember.

The Mark 3 Halifax was a noisy plane. We had flying helmets on – leather flying helmets – with our earphones tucked into the earpieces of the helmet and an oxygen mask just adjacent to our mouth and an intercom switch just under our chin. All this was part of the flying helmet. I would have flown in battledress. I used that on every operation. It was cold up there just in battledress but we had thermal underwear on and we had fur lined flying boots that came up both our legs just under our knees. We were quite warm. We had heating pipes running under the navigator’s table and heat would emanate from them. Heat from the exhausts of the engines would be going through those pipes and we were quite snug in the navigator’s cabin.

Sandy wasn’t so snug though. He would’ve worn electrically heated, special flying gear. It had wires running through it and he wore electrically heated gloves right up to mid arm below his elbow. On this first mission the mid-upper gunner and tail gunner didn’t have to fire at anything.

What I wanted to tell you about occurred coming back to the squadron. On the timing of the return to the squadron, I looked over to starboard through the nose and on the right hand side and I could see a bunch of airfields. We couldn’t distinguish one from the other and we overshot. I panicked! We overshot by a long way and in the end I said to Bill, “I don’t know where I am. I’d better get a QDM.” A QDM was when the wireless operator holds down his key and the people at Pocklington would get a bearing from it and issue us with instructions to fly such and such a course. And that’s what I did.

I didn’t know that GEE could be used for homing. All of this would have come out when we went to interrogation as soon as we landed. The Nav (navigation) leader instructed me on how to home on GEE the next day. I resolved to correct that as soon as I could.

I didn’t know because they had neglected to train me in it. I’d been using GEE for three of four months but only to obtain fixes. But there was another use to GEE. You could home onto a specific place. You could set the co-ordinates of base and when the blips, like little horse shoe shapes, came in line you could say, “There we are!” and that’s where we were.

We took off at 23.50 with 8,500 pounds of bombs and we were gone for five and a half hours, so it was almost five thirty in morning when we were returning and already we could see the airfields down below us. My navigation was about a mile out. We found our airfield by getting the QDMs. They sent it out. It came back by Morse code. When I agreed with Bill that we would get a QDM, that involved Harry.

When I went down to the Navs section the day after the raid, the Nav leader wanted to know what happened. We were as close as damn it to the drome and didn’t recognize that that was where we were supposed to land and he straight away gave me lessons in homing on GEE. And a couple of operations later I put it into full effect. I was an expert at it by then.

We landed after our first mission. I was ashamed of myself because I had fallen from my high standards and got lost. Even though I wasn’t trained in that aspect of GEE and you could say that it wasn’t my fault, that was no excuse. I panicked! At that point when I thought, “I don’t know where we are!” It was an easy thing to find out in the end but I made sure that I was proficient in homing on GEE from then on.

We had done our first trip over enemy territory. I was relieved that we got back safely. Our pilot, Bill’s diary entry of the 22nd of May 1944 says:

“Arrived back over the English coast and decided it wasn't such a bad little Island after all. Then as dawn was breaking we arrived back at base tired but happy. Landed and went to interrogation.”

In this entry he is very excited writing about the mission and calm writing about what happened after the mission. I just felt ashamed. He doesn’t mention anything about us getting lost.

 

Main Page - Halifax to Liverpol - Stuttgart and More - Goodbye 102 Squadron

 

 

 

 

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