The wind was cold as it blew across the bleak airfield, and the rain drizzled from a darkening sky. We stood under the bombers wing in a forlorn group, eight youngsters out of merry quips. The false laughter of bravado had died away as we suddenly found that we needed to be back in the brightly lit Mess with a manly pint. All the pre flight checks were complete, guns loaded, bomb bay full, everything working. The ground crew were grouped under the other wing probably because we had to make friends with them. Or, were they waiting for us to prove ourselves?
This was our first “OP.” The very first. We’d trained for months for this moment. Long hours in the classroom, and many hours of flying training followed at long last with “crewing up.” Eight young, raw, self-conscious strangers off to the Operational Training Unit where together we practised all that we’d been taught. Finally to the Squadron based at this God forsaken spot on the Fens of Lincolnshire. Even then we had two more weeks of practice, and to read up on the mysteries of our aircraft.
Tonight was the real thing. Six aircraft were to bomb a railway depot, and small marshalling yard in Northern France. We’d been heartened at the briefing when the Wing Commander had told us that this one would be, “A piece of cake chaps.” During the next few months we found that he said that every time.
A small Hillman car splashed into the dispersal area, and a head appeared through the passenger window. “OK., chaps, it’s on. Start up at 19.30. You’ll get a green from the Control Van. Good Luck.”
Slightly embarrassed, we went through the ritual of peeing over the tail wheel before climbing aboard. Again we checked everything over. My charts etc., were as good as I could make them. We plugged in to the “Intercom” and confirmed that we were “OK” as the Skipper checked with each one of us.
My belly churned as I heard, and felt, the four engines cough into life. The aircraft lurched as the brakes came off and we started to move. There was no way that we could jump out now! Arriving at the threshold of the runway I almost spewed up when I found that my mind was a complete blank. Looking at my Flight Plan it made no sense. None at all! The Skipper called to the Engineer, “Brakes off. Full power.” A mighty roar and a great surge of movement we were away careering through darkness. We seemed to rumble along the runway
for ever until eventually we were smoothly airborne, and the undercarriage came up with two great thumps as we climbed away.
The “Intercom” clicked. “Confirm the first heading Nav,” the Skipper asked.
I looked at my notes. My voice was thick. “105° magnetic Skip,” I croaked. “Cromer in twelve minutes, its 170° as far as Sheerness.
It gave me great comfort when he asked me to keep him on the ball with headings, and times. A few seconds later, he added, “I’m bloody green as well you know.”
There’s not much to tell about that night. We kept on course and height quite well really, and it was a good first trip with just a little light flak. No fighters or searchlights at all. Unlike our later “Ops.,” it really was a piece of cake.”
But there was something else. Something that was to change the lives of all eight of us. There was an old Ground Crew Flight Sergeant. A “Chiefy” as they used to be called. He would wander around with his great coat collar turned up, ail soaked forage cap crushed down on his head. Shoulders hunched, hands thrust deep into his pockets he would appear all over the place, especially when there was an “OP” on and the crew was at the aircraft preparing to go. He would shuffle around the place aimlessly. Our Gunners were all N.C.O.’s and although they looked for him in the Sergeants Mess, he was never there. Strangely, we were the only crew who saw him. We questioned our Ground Crew Sergeant about him, to be met with a puzzled look.
“Would you say he was old?” He asked. “What does he look like?”
All we could tell him was the old great coat, and oil soaked cap. We had never seen his face.
The Sergeant looked at us oddly. “Always got his hands in his pockets, and slouches like and old man?” He asked.
We confirmed this to him. The Skipper asked, “Well, who is he?”
The Sergeant hesitated, and then drew up to attention, looking at the horizon. “No idea sir. None at all.”
So that was that. We did more trips, and reached twenty. Twenty “OPs!” We were veterans now, and a bit “cocky” with it. At least we were cocky on the ground, up there we were terrified, and it was getting worse with each sortie. Each one seemed worse than the last. On weekends off, or on leave, we were extroverted show offs as we drank and laughed, but with the return to reality we reverted to being very apprehensive young men.
All this time the old “Chiefy” was still wandering about, visible apparently to only us.
By now we were old hands. There had been commissions, medals, parties, enquiries by the local Constabulary into our behaviour, and much more. I often wonder if the local Police ever knew who pushed a milk float into their yard.
It was late August 1944. Our last “OP” was on the board. A bad one. A very bad one. Daylight to a Norwegian Fiord. A heavily defended enemy Naval Base with a full load. The heaviest we’d ever been, and we definitely did not want to go. Final briefing had been 06.00. The forecasted weather was for “gin clear continuous.” Both ways! This was a time when a heavy overcast would have been welcome. Also it was one time when we could have done without the “Wingco” telling us that it would be “A piece of cake chaps.”
We’d had our bacon and eggs, and “Dinger” Bell our W.A.A.F., driver had taken us to the aircraft. All our checks were done. We were kitted up, and lazing on the grass. The Ground Crew seemed to know how it was, as they polished every single scratch from the windows, and inspected everything twice over. Although we sprawled out like the veterans that in fact we were, we were keyed up, and very nervous indeed.
The chatter had stopped. The Skipper nudged me with his boot making me sit up. He nodded toward the other side of the parking area. The “Chiefy” was standing there as we’d always seen him, with his oily old cap, and great coat with the collar turned up. He shambled over, and stood looking down at us. This was the first time that we’d actually seen his face, and what a face it was! He looked very old, at least sixty we thought. A weather beaten face, heavily lined, yet with a gentle expression. It was his eyes that surprised me. They were grey-green. One moment sad, the next dancing with amusement. When he spoke, his accent had a soft Welsh lilt.
“So then,” he said. “Your last one is it?” He looked up at the morning sky. “See for miles today you can.”
The Skipper asked. “Who are you?”
“Don’t ask.” The “Chiefy” answered. “I’m everyone, and no one.” He looked down at us again, and gave a long sigh. “Old timers are you? This trip will sort you out alright. It’s a long flog there, and back. Take my advice lads and land back as far north as you can.”
I told him we had enough fuel to get back to Base. Anyway, how did he know?
“You’re not Aircrew.” The Engineer said.
The “Chiefy” looked at him. “No son, I’m not.” If you want me to go away, I will.” He looked at each of us. “But I can help you if you’ll let me.”
“How? How could you help us?” we asked. “How could you possibly do that?”
“I know the “clangers” you’ve dropped.” He looked at me. “Remember the trip to Hamburg? You gave the course for home slap bang over the target. Very silly.” He spoke to the Engineer. “As for you lad, you tried to cross feed fuel from an empty tank. That was over Rouen wasn’t it?” Turning to the Skipper, he eyed him for a moment or so. “And you Boyo. Remember that night off Cherbourg? You turned starboard instead of port, and you nearly over flew an enemy fighter airfield.” He chuckled. “Now there’s daft for you.”
We were all speechless. Those ‘Clangers’, and others, should have done for us. But, somehow they hadn’t.
He nodded at the Engineer. “No lad, I’m not Aircrew, but I know more about the game than you ever will.”
The Skipper asked him, “How do you know all the problems, and mistakes ‘Chief’?”
The strange man sat down on the grass. “Take it easy son. I was with you every time.” He plucked a blade of grass and started to chew it. “You should all be dead a few times over, but in my own small way I was able to help.” He chewed the grass for a while. “I won’t be coming with you this time. This is one you must do on your own.”
I looked around. The Ground Crew had disappeared somewhere. It was a fine summer’s morning with a cloudless blue sky. Some birds twittered in the hedge behind us, and a tractor chugged away in a nearby field.
It was so very peaceful. We were all silent for a while, each lost in his own thoughts.
Eddy, the Mid Upper Gunner asked him, “Were you really with us Chiefy? Are you telling us you picked up all our clangers?”
“That I was, and that I did Boyo.” The Chiefy answered.
Someone else spoke. “OK then, if what you tell us is true, why aren’t you going to be with us today?”
Hi answer sounded somehow sad, and the Welsh lilt was more pronounced. “It’s the rules lad. It’s the rules.”
Although it was all in our minds, this silly fairy story, I felt even more afraid of this coming trip, and wished with all my heart that this scruffy run down old man would come with us. I looked up at him. He was staring at me, his pale eyes seeming to look right inside my head.
His face softened. “Don’t be afraid lad. I can’t come with you on your last one. It’s the rules you see.” He paused and looked at us all. “But there’s nothing in the rules that says I can’t talk to you.”
We moved closer, and formed a semi-circle before him. I can still see it in my mind as we sat cross legged like schoolboys.
He started to talk. “Listen to me lads. Listen carefully, and remember my words. Take my advice, and act on it. It’s all I can do for you now. I have brought you all this far over the last few months, and it’s come to the end for us. Soon I shall have another bunch of youngsters to watch over. You’ll be on your own.”
We moved closer to him. Completely absorbed, we hung on his every word.
“Now then.” He began. “You first Skipper. This is the longest trip you’ll ever do, and the hardest. Remember your previous mistakes, and learn from them. THINK! Think not hard, but carefully. Evaluate your every move, there’s time enough to do that. You know how the flak floats up at you, how slowly it starts to rise. Well that’s your time frame, about 5 or 6 seconds, and it’s plenty. Don’t jerk the controls, it’s not a Hollywood film, it’s really going to happen. Take avoiding action easily and smoothly. Listen to your Navigator, and watch your heading like a hawk. Listen to your Gunners when they give the ‘gen’ on flak and fighters. Yours is the easiest job of the lot. Remember lad, fly easy and smooth. Listen to your crew.”
‘Chiefy’ looked at the Gunners. “Three of you. You’ve been the best of the lot, bar none. Not much I can tell you.” He paused for a moment. “Well -, maybe you in the rear turret.” He looked at Tommy. “Don’t muck about on this one Boyo. You’re OK, but keep your mind on the job.” He chewed on a fresh blade of grass. “Don’t forget you Gunners, deflection first and last. Take your time, and don’t rely on pot shots.”
We sat quietly, saying nothing. It was uncanny. He seemed to know us inside out.
He carried on. “Wireless Op., you’ll do fine.” Turning to the Engineer he smiled. “You’re alright lad. Just keep calm, and check everything twice.” He shook his head, still smiling. “And this time, try to remember which tank empties first.”
I was the last one. It was like waiting to see the Headmaster. I kept thinking of my clanger over Hamburg. Did he really put it right?
“Now you Boyo. You worry too much! Check each course correction twice. Take your time, but be sure. Don’t forget, this trip will be mostly, in fact all of it, will be dead reckoning navigation, so be accurate. Use that drift sight all the time. Check, and double check. Yours is the lead aircraft, so be right.”
Then he spoke to us all. “An aeroplane is like a thoroughbred Welsh Collie. Treat it right and it’ll look after you. Treat it wrong, and it’ll turn round and bite you. Know it. Care for it. It knows what you’re thinking, and can sense your fear. It can save you, or kill you.
Make friends with it, touch it gently with affection and it will respond to you. When it gets hurt, as it will today, nurse it tenderly and help it to help you home.” He thought for a moment, chewing his grass. “Last of all, DON’T PANIC. What I’m saying to you is when you’re hanging by your fingernails; don’t wave your arms about.”
We kept silent. Somehow we knew he was right, and that he knew it all.
The ‘Chiefy’ stood up. His voice was gently. “There lads, I’ve done my best for you. You fly this one yourselves. It’s the rules you know. Don’t let me down Boyo’s.” He turned, and slouched away. At the far wing tip he stopped and turned. “God bless you lads,” he said. Pushing his oily cap firmly, he went off.
An hour later we turned onto the runway, and took off for our lost ‘OP,’ it was a bad one for us. Over the target we met the heaviest flak we’d yet encountered. When we turned for home the fighters were on us like angry wasps, but we fought them off after a long running battle. We stayed calm, and did as ‘Chief’ had told us. The Skipper flew as though he was driving a Rolls Royce. My navigation was spot on, and miracle of miracles, Tommy actually shot one down. The aircraft was badly hit, but we nursed it as the ‘Chiefy’ had told us. Derek the Engineer had even TALKED to it!
‘Chiefy’ was right. Our “Thoroughbred Welsh Collie” had responded, and although sorely hurt, was bringing us safely home.
After many hours we were coming in smoothly, even though we’d lost an engine. The runway was in sigh, and we were nicely lined up with the centre line when the Mid Upper Gunner called -, “Look by the control van.”
Standing by the chequered van was the ‘Chiefy’. His great coat collar up, and that awful cap still crushed down on his head, hands in pockets. We could see him quite clearly as we coasted in.
Softly through our headphones came that now familiar Welsh voice. “Don’t look at me! Watch the bloody runway! Remember what I told you Boyo’s. Easy now lads, you’re nearly there. Come on, nice and smooth now.”
Our wheels kissed the runway in the smoothest, sweetest landing we’d ever done. That was our last ‘OP’, and we never saw, or heard of the ‘Chiefy’ again.
All these years later, I’m still involved with Aviation, and still respect and care for, anything that flies.
Thanks ‘Chiefy’. Thanks for everything. May your Welsh valley be forever green.