No 72 Squadron Association







In late April 2013 I had a strange letter that started, ‘I have found your name on the internet as being the Historian for 72 Sqn RAF.  I recently bought a house in Leeds.’  At first I could not see the relevance or ‘join up the dots’, however, all became clear.

 Harold and Elsie Booth bought 24 Shadwell Walk, Moortown, Leeds in 1946 and on Elsie’s death in 1958, Harold married Audrey Violet Wilkinson in May 1959.  Harold died in 1974 and Audrey remarried Bernard Stanley Sutcliff of 9 Shadwell Walk in 1977.  Bernard died in 1989 and Audrey died in 2011.  Neither of the last two occupants was directly related to Harold and Elsie Booth’s son, Geof, who had died in 1943 whilst serving in the RAF and there were no relatives of the last owners nearby who had any interest in the house contents.  When Dr Phil Gamlen and Toby Gamlen bought the house in Jun 2012 the property was cleared by the agents, however, in the loft they found a box of personal mementos that included photo albums, diaries and family birth, marriage and death certificates.  Dr Gamlen tried to find a living relative of the Booths to pass them on to but was not successful and was told by the solicitors to dispose of them as he wished.  Hence the letter offering Geof Booth’s album and collection of aircraft postcards to the Sqn for our archives, which I duly collected.  I then discovered the information below on Geof’s life.

On the 31 Aug 1941 he completed No 24 Course at 57 OTU Hawarden probably flying the Miles Master trainer before converting onto the Spitfire. (Chester Hawarden Airport is an airport located near Hawarden situated in Flintshire, Wales, close to the border with England and 3.5 NM (6.5 km; 4.0 mi) west southwest of the English city of Chester.  Number 57 Operational Training Unit was formed in 1940 to train fighter pilots.)

A short period of leave probably followed and on 21 Sep 1941 he was posted to No 72 Sqn at Biggin Hill from 122 Sqn at RAF Catterick. 122 Sqn were flying Mk IIa Spitfires so he probably got in a few extra hours on type before joining 72 Sqn.  He would have spent the next 2 to 3 weeks getting familiarisation flights around the local area and becoming combat ready with practice air combat and firing sorties.  The F540 Operations Diary showed me that he flew about 40 Ops sorties on the Sqn including cover for the RN Swordfish in the ‘Channel Dash’ incident.

 Fg Off Booth was posted from 72 Sqn on 3 May 1942 to the ‘Merchant Service Fighting Unit’. I have now to try and find his history post this date but below is a description of the job on the MSFU.

 The MSFU pilots flew Hurricanes from catapults on merchant ships attached to convoys of anything up to fifty merchant men a time. The ships were mainly bringing supplies from America and taking them to Murmansk and Archangel, the hard-pressed Soviets and Gibraltar. This was a highly physical and uncomfortable task, apart from also being very scary. The ships were constantly attacked by U Boat packs and aircraft. When they were in range of the latter, if they launched the Hurricane they knew they would ultimately have to bail out and hope to be picked up by either a friendly escort vessel or a sunken ships lifeboat.

 On 22 Nov 1943 Fg Off Booth died aged 23 whilst flying a Spitfire on 57 OTU (which had moved to RAF Boulmer) probably on a refresher course after his time with the MFSU.  The accident record card indicates that he was taking off at night and at about 200ft he lost control and crashed due to not allowing enough time for his instrument gyros to get up to full working speed.  He is buried at the Chevington military cemetery near Hadston to the south of Amble in Northumbria, not far from RAF Acklington (now HM Prison). 

 Whilst on 72 Sqn he was photographed by the Kent Messenger newspaper at Gravesend and a large copy of this is in the current 72 Sqn briefing room.






Before I ever really knew what a helicopter was, I was an Air Signaller on Hastings Mk IIs with 48 squadron, based at Changi in Singapore. My logbook from those days reads like a copy of the Phillips All the World Atlas that we used to be given in school when I was a child. Hong Kong, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, Karachi, Tokyo, Fiji, Tonga and a whole alphabet of other exotic locations appear regularly on the list of scheduled flights we made. On any day of the year our squadron’s aircraft could be found anywhere between Cyprus and the west coast of the USA, from Korea and Japan in the North to New Zealand in the south. It was not impossible to log a thousand flying hours per annum and some crews got more than that. Most people got their clothes made by Samtani’s tailors, or Charm’s, in Hong Kong and had a favourite bar in Bangkok, a girlfriend in Manila and could recommend good hotels in virtually every capital city in the Far East.

 Then came Harold Wilson and the world started to close in on RAF Transport Command. We were informed that our squadron would close within six months and the scramble for good postings started. For a Signaller, Coastal Command’s Shackletons loomed with the prospect of eighteen-hour flights at fifty feet, hunting submarines in the Atlantic wastes. Failing that, working in a map-store on some RAF station somewhere was a likely alternative. Neither option filled me with lust.

 On the 7th December 1966 I was picked to crew our entrant in the Bennett Trophy competition, a supply-dropping and navigation competition for Transport Command squadrons in the Far East. During the flight, monitors watched everything we did to check that we worked exactly to regulations. One of them started talking to me in a quiet moment and asked what I’d do when the squadron folded. I said I’d probably go onto Shackletons and then get out as soon as possible afterwards. He said “Why not try helicopters?” I said “What they?” or something similar and he said I should give it a try at least.

 About a fortnight later, I was told I’d been posted “Supernumerary to Course Number Whatever” at RAF Odiham for Wessex helicopters. Stumped to think of what one of those was, I braved the 90% humidity and 110 degrees of the Changi afternoon and strolled across to the Education Section where I borrowed a copy of Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft K to Z and looked up Westland Wessex. There was a picture of something that looked like a cross between a flat-bottomed barge and a Kenwood Mixer, with a touch of Boston Pug thrown in to improve its looks. Four weeks later I was faced with the beast itself, in all its camouflaged glory and I still could not work out, for the life of me, how it could possibly fly!

 When I joined the SRCU at Odiham, it was nicknamed “RAF Long Sutton” as it was closer to that village than it was to the main camp. There, I found out how helicopters actually managed to stay airborne, but along with many of the other crewmen, I didn’t believe it, and we all thought that the whole thing was really done by mirrors. And unless you jumped out of the cabin from time to time and threw a handful of peanuts into the air-scoop on its nose, the beast would get hungry and stop working. Well, the Wessex did actually look more like a fish than an aircraft, didn’t it? Not long after I joined the SRCU I was sitting in the crewroom, alone, when the CO looked in and asked me whether I was doing anything. I said no, I wasn’t and he said “OK, nip out there and get in the left hand seat of that aircraft. The pilot is just going to do his first solo”. Booted, suited and helmeted, I did as I was told. The young pilot appeared, rather stressed looking and hot in the face and we climbed aboard. He started her up, asked if I thought everything was OK, I said it was and we took off for the first of three timed circuits. After the first two he landed, wiped his face, asked me if it was all OK and then took off again. Finally we landed, shut down as the aircraft wasn’t needed any more that day and climbed out. He was visibly relieved and delighted that I thought he’d done so well. Then he asked me how many hours I had on the Wessex. I said “None. This is the first time I’ve been airborne in one!” and he virtually collapsed in terror. I often think about that trip.

 Eventually the Course finished and I was posted across the airfield to 72 Sqn. On my first day, my Flight Commander welcomed me and told me that this was a happy squadron where we worked hard, played hard and took no notice of the few discontented ex-Transport Command crewmen who were constantly complaining. It should be mentioned that most of the crewmen at that time were Air Engineers, Air Signallers, or AEs, and they had all come from multi-engined fixed wing aircraft to replace the previous crewmen who had been groundcrew, but flew as crewmen until there arose a problem with insurance cover. As several of the previous non-aircrew crewmen were still around and many of the replacement aircrew crewmen were less than totally in love with helicopters, it could be said that an “atmosphere” could occasionally be detected. It was not unknown for crewmen to complain, sometimes loudly and persistently. This led to several situations two of which I will mention.

 After one particular crewman had been complaining, cause unknown, a notice was posted on the crewroom board that said “Sgt “X” is herby permitted to shout in the Crewroom. Sgt “X” is also allowed to swear in the Crewroom. In no circumstances will Sgt “X” shout and swear at the same time in the Crewroom.” It was about that time that I found myself standing to attention in front of my Flight Commander in order to inform him of something or other. I said my piece and he wearily reached under his desktop, opened a drawer and withdrew an oblong piece of card which he turned towards me. On it was printed in large script “Thank you for bringing your complaint to me, to which I have listened intently. Now go away and f**k your hat”

 I saluted smartly and left.

 When the new breed of Air Quartermaster crewmen began to arrive on the squadron, there was a small amount of muttering among the older hands but this came mainly from the guys who had never worked with AQMs before. To many of us, they were very welcome. The job of crewman on helicopters was a positive addition to their career patterns and they were, in consequence, a happier, more upbeat group. The general effect was to lighten the mood in the crewroom, or so I felt, anyway.

 Gradually the less-happy guys drifted away to other squadrons or other jobs or left the RAF for good and we who remained got on with the job and enjoyed what there was to enjoy. I became familiar with almost every military training area in Britain, and worked with very nearly every regiment of the British army. I went on exercises all over Britain, in Norway, Denmark, and Germany and did detachments to Cyprus and Northern Ireland. I learned to be comfortable in a 12 by 12 tent in winter, and how to make a palatable meal out of a tin of compo-rations and a spoonful of curry powder. I was a member of the team who ferried three aircraft down to Nicosia in Cyprus at the start of the UN detachments in Cyprus which could easily make a story in its own right, and I was one of the first 72 Sqn crewmen on the ground in Aldergrove when we were deployed there at the outbreak of the Troubles again in ’69.

 My service ended in May 1970 and I had been in a state of uncertainty about whether to go or stay and then I had an offer that was too good to refuse from an industrial company in the Midlands and the die was cast.

 On 29th April 1970, our Wing Checker found me in the crewroom. “Doing anything? He asked, to which I said that I wasn’t. “OK, we have to do a Cat-check. See you at the aircraft” Again booted and suited, I joined him and the pilot who was being checked and we got everything turning and burning. On the intercom he asked me “Why were you looking at your watch when I said we had a trip to do?” I said “Well, I have to be at the Stores at 14.30 to hand my kit in. I’m leaving to go on terminal leave today”

 Without a word he air-taxied XT605 across to the air-raid shelters at the edge of the field and said “Get out” so I jumped down onto the grass-covered roof. They then cleared off and carried out the check flight while I sat and watched. The aircraft came back after forty minutes and hovered so I could remount and then we air-taxied about two feet off the ground back into 72’s dispersal. We landed, shut down and walked back into the crewroom, saying nothing. I handed in my kit and went home to start a new life.

 I have ever been airborne in a helicopter since that day. I do, however, carry with me a wealth of memories from my three years with “72, City of Krakow Squadron” aka “The 72nd Fleet of Foot and Light of Finger”. No, don’t ask me why. They were just nicknames. The sight of Stonehenge looming through the summer mist as we flew across Salisbury Plain at first light. The clear outlines of the remains of long-lost villages in the sun-dried fields, and the scintillating snow-clad hills of the Lake District in winter.  The panorama of the Norwegian fjords spread out below as we hovered at ten thousand feet (Yes. We did) Roaring across the fields of northern Germany in a group of three, and saying “Here comes Alec” as another Wessex began to pass us very low down. “How do you know it’s Alec?” asked my pilot. I looked again and said “Because he’s the only pilot I know who leave wheel-marks in the grass” And again, yes. He did.

 There was a delight to be had in simply sitting in the doorway of a Wessex as it made its sedate way over the patchwork of the countryside, even when number 5 bearing of the starboard engine failed and you found your legs frying in discharged engine-oil. And the day when, with an aircraft full of troops, there was a loud bang and a seagull that had hit the oleo-leg filled the cabin with a million white feathers and a similar number of avian body-parts, shredded small. A bit like that scene in “Apocalypse Now” when a stray shot ignites a flare in the cabin and everyone except the mad colonel hits “panic” at the same moment.

 I remember creeping through the mountains over the heel of Italy in low cloud and fog on a January day en route to Corfu during the ferry trip to Cyprus. Supplying the Finns on top of the mountain ranges in deep snow, with them unloading the aircraft while clad in sandals and shirtsleeve order. There are hundreds of other images in my mind, too, but no space in which to tell about them. Some other time, maybe?

 I am sure, too, that there are some of my contemporaries out there who will have seen all of these things through lenses of a different colour, so please accept my apologies if I appear to have been using pink ones.



 Erik Mannings

Military units have adopted mascots for centuries, and there is still an official allowance from the MOD for the upkeep of mascots to provide for their well-being, food and ‘uniform’ to this day.  All three services have taken mascots with the Army being well known for the ‘Regimental Goat’ as of the Royal Welsh, the ‘Irish Wolfhound’ of the Irish Guards, and the ‘Drum Horse’ of the Queen’s Hussars.  For the Royal Navy it was a bit more difficult unless the unit was shore-based.  In the early days all ships were encouraged to have a cat or two – which became the ships mascot – to control vermin - but this practice was forbidden in 1975.  In World War Two many ships had unofficial mascots (technically a unit-pet) such as the Bulldog ‘Venus’ of the destroyer HMS Vansittart.  Submarines presented a special problem and most mascots in the underwater service were in-animate as extra lungs were not welcome using up the available air to breathe!  The Fleet Air Arm had some notable mascots, in the 1970s a lion called ‘Simon’ was the mascot of 892 Sqn who operated a display team of Sea Vixens known as ‘Simons Circus’, and the RAF often had mascots related directly to the heraldic coat of arms for the unit; for example, 27 Sqn adopted a baby elephant at a local zoo.  Everyone knows of the black Labrador which was the unofficial mascot of 617 Sqn (The Dam Busters) and owned by Guy Gibson, but the dogs’ name is now not PC!  Current RAF mascots include a goat called ‘Aircraftsman George’ of RAF Halton and once 8 Sqn had an eagle owl called ‘Boo Boo’, unfortunately he was agoraphobic so did not like to fly over the airfield but only around his cage, so he was not much use in deterring other birds off the runway.

 No 72 Squadron’s heraldic emblem is a Swift bird, not a very suitable subject for a mascot, but not to be deterred the squadron adopted a very unusual creature on 28th Feb 1957 in the form of an alligator!  At the time the unit was based at RAF Church Fenton in Yorkshire flying various marks of the Gloster Meteor night fighter with a crew of two.  The arrival is noted in the formal F540 Operations Diary for the day and the entry continues; ‘He (or she) has been given the honorary rank of Pilot Officer (unpaid) and christened Frederick Lionel Bass-Worthington.  He measures 13.5 inches from tip to tail and his rate of growth is being watched closely.  He has started his aircrew training in the Anson and it is hoped that he will soon progress to jet-flying.  Flt Lt Hole has undertaken the arduous – not to say dangerous – task of caring for Fred and a great affection has sprung up between them.  Despite his name, FLBW has a taste for Guinness – scope for civilian occupation when the ostrich retires?’  Notes:  His surname was taken from the two breweries visible from 72 Sqn base at RAF Church Fenton in the nearby town of Tadcaster, and the reference to the ostrich is because of the advertising campaign that Guinness were running at the time which featured a cartoon ostrich.

 The F540 entry for March 1957 includes the following.  ‘Plt Off F L Bass-Worthington’s training has continued and he shows a lively interest in matters appertaining to aircrew – particularly fingers.  It is rumoured that offers have been made to No 19 Sqn for unwanted pilots with a view to fattening up for future meals.’



 Fg Off Ken Hughes with B-W 1 about to go flying.

 All did not progress smoothly and in April the following record appears: ‘the latest addition to the Squadron History Room is a rather regrettable letter from the Station Commander to Plt Off Bass-Worthington, reprimanding him for running a wine bill whilst under the age of 16 and not paying mess subscriptions.  We understand the matter has now been cleared up and a rather sulky alligator can be seen most evenings waiting outside the bar in the Officers Mess.  Incidentally Bass-Worthingtons operation score is now 6 pilots, 4 navigators and 6 civilians.’

 At some time in the summer time, Pathe News visited the station and there is a piece on ’72 Sqn pets’ which includes footage of B-W being handled by his keeper, Fg Off ‘Timber’ Woods.  The aircrew are all in Lloyd-loom chairs in front of the hangar with Hunters and Meteors on the flight line behind them.  At the scramble call Timber Woods puts B-W into a Fire-bucket full of water and the crews scramble airborne.  B-W is seen peering over the lip of the bucket before scrambling himself – but not airborne, just out of the bucket to waddle off into some bushes.

 Tragedy came on 14/15th December when, during a very cold weekend  Plt Off F L Bass-Worthington was found dead when the Squadron was opened up on the Monday morning.  As reported in the F540, ‘The corpse was pickled by the medical section and is now on display in the Sqn History Room.’


Fortunately, Flt Lt Nicholson had made a Christmas Card featuring B-W which is pictured here but he is showing little respect for the squadrons’ aircraft.

The news of his demise was reported on television and as a result a replacement was offered by the Mayor of Southport.  The new version was said to be ‘slightly larger and more hardy and was called Plt Off F L Bass-Worthington 3.’ Note: I have no idea why the numbering went from BW1 to BW3 with no mention of BW2!

 Additional information comes from a copy of the ‘History of Church Fenton – 50th Anniversary’ booklet and in it is an article by Allen Rowley of the Yorkshire Evening Post who often reported on the activities at Church Fenton.  In a piece entitled ‘Fenton Memories’ he reports on F L B-W as follows, ‘Pink elephants, they say, are not the best drinking companions.  But men used to travel hundreds of miles to drink under the beady eyes of an alligator at the Bay Horse, Cawood, not far from Church Fenton. Mind you, this was a very special alligator - he once rejoiced in the name of Flying Officer Frederick Lionel Bass-Worthington – and like many other weird and wonderful items then in the bar at the Bay Horse, he was once owned by a fighter squadron based at RAF Church Fenton. Three squadrons – Nos 19, 72 and 609 contributed to this unofficial museum.  He then describes several items from crashed aircraft before returning to B-W.  Flying Officer Frederick Lionel Bass-Worthington was introduced to the locals at Cawood by a pilot who slipped him – very much alive – on to the domino table.  ‘There wasn’t half a scatter’, said Mr Redall!  Members of the squadron used to take the baby alligator all over the place but the Bay Horse was his favourite pub.  Pilots used to start him off on warm milk and stout and he would end the night on whisky.  Then he used to swim to the bottom of the kitchen sink and sleep it off!  When it finally came time for him to go to the great swamp in the sky, Bass-Worthington was well and truly pickled in a large glass jar and sat in a corner of the bar studying the antics of the pilots for many a long night!’  Unfortunately in 2006 when I tried to find if B-W was still in the bar I discovered that the Bay Horse had been flattened and a small residential estate was now on the site and not a sign of a pickled alligator to be found.

 The report of B-W3s’ arrival was recorded in the F540 for Feb 1958 as follows.  ‘On Wednesday, 12th February 1958 Wg Cdr R D Doleman DSO, DFC, Flt Lt P D Gooding, Flt Lt J K McLean, Fg Off C H Davis and Fg Off J F McLean visited Southport Zoo to collect Alligator number III.  He was presented to the Squadron on behalf of the Zoo by the Mayor of Southport.  He is a much larger version than his predecessors and has settled in his new home very well.  The Squadron representatives thoroughly enjoyed themselves during their visit.’


As the photograph shows, B-W3 is much larger than his predecessor.

 This is the last entry to the official diary that mentions Plt Off F L Bass-Worthington 3 and I cannot find out what happened to him, however, the Squadron was very busy with the change of aircraft from Meteor to Javelin and the accompanying move from Church Fenton to Leconfield in April 1959.  If anyone has any further information I should be glad to hear of it.


North Weald memories

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Dramatic Escape


 Steve Clow



 Denys Mobberley stand beside a Vampire.

 A North Weald RAF pilot was never far from his beloved wife Barbara as he bailed out at 11,000ft, his blazing jet crashing to the ground below. Sgt pilot Denys Mobberley’s Vampire disintegrated after it was hit by another jet, falling to earth in pieces, narrowly missing All Saints parish church in Purleigh, near Maldon. But it was a lock of his wife’s hair, sewn into his uniform, that kept the former squadron leader safe, on this and another death defying occasion during his 25-year career with the RAF, which started in 1943.

 Denys Mobberley recalled:

 “I had been taking part in a wing formation exercise involving 604, 601 and 72 squadrons, comprising 18 Vampires led by Sqn Ldr Kingaby, a Battle of Britain ace. When we had completed our high level exercises we started our descent towards base, with a reasonable space between each squadron. However, my number two continued to close up on me and the leading edge of his wing collided with my tail booms.

 Everything in the cockpit was vibrating and breaking up, and it was not possible to focus on anything – all I could think of was my wife, Barbara. I knew that I had to escape – this was before ejection seats – fortunately the cockpit canopy was still intact so I quickly checked that my parachute and dinghy were correctly secured but disconnected my radio plug and oxygen tube. I then put one hand on the harness release and the other on the canopy eject lever. I bent fully forward, knocking my forehead on the gun sight, and operated the harness and canopy releases.”


 The remains of Mobberley’s Vampire

 As the formation was travelling at 350mph at about 11,000ft, he felt the full blast of the airflow; his oxygen mask flattened hard against his face before breaking away.

 “At this stage I must have temporarily lost consciousness and the next thing I remember was being clear of the aircraft and falling towards the earth. I was not very high so I pulled the parachute ripcord handle. To my great relief, the chute opened immediately and luckily, being over open country, I landed softly in a freshly ploughed field. One of the other pilots had seen my parachute open and flew down to see where I had landed. I was able to indicate to him that I was safe and uninjured.

 There was a country road alongside the field and, after a few minutes, during which I gathered together my parachute and dinghy pack, a local couple arrived in their car. Mrs Jarvis offered me her handkerchief and asked me if I would like to wipe my face. I asked if it was muddy to which she replied that it was covered in blood; I had cut my forehead on the gun sight. She then asked me if I would like a cigarette. I said I didn’t smoke, to which she replied, “Aren’t you going to start?”


 Sgt Denys Mobberley (2nd left) at Angelholm, Sweden, 25th August 1951.

 They took me to their home, from where I called the RAF station, and gratefully accepted a cup of tea and biscuits, before an ambulance arrived and took me to the Chelmsford & Essex Hospital for a check-up.

 My two wing men, Syd Hyams and Peter Blake, quickly drove down to Woodford Green to tell my wife Barbara that I would be a bit late getting home that evening. When the full story came out Barbara thought that I had a miraculous escape, but I assured her that she had been there to look after me the whole time. You see, ever since I was awarded my ‘wings’ I had always sewn a lock of her hair under the pilot’s flying badge on my ‘battle dress’; the uniform I wore under my flying overalls.”



Denys Mobberley in 2012.

North Africa




 Darryl Briggs

 “It was an inauspicious introduction to 72 Sqn.  Just prior to departure I was languishing in the RAF Police cell at Ouston.  I was going to phone my dad but fizzing as the phone had been smashed.  I reported it to the police, who accused me of the damage despite my saying that if I had done it I wouldn’t have reported it.  However I was missed (by the Sqn) so I was reluctantly released.

 We got our first glimpse of our cruise ship and like the John Masefield poem it was ‘a salt encrusted relic of a glorious past’.  SS Staffordshire of the Bibby Line with a single stack.  What caused rumours as to our destination was a huge snow plough on her sharp end. It was really packed.  ‘Brown Jobs’ and RAF.  Cooks package tours had really earned their cash!  We were given a long table but I can’t recall if food was a ‘free for all’ or if someone at the table top was detailed.  The menu card was missing.  Owing to over booking our cabins were missing, instead eight hammocks for 12 men.  Failing to get one I was on the deck – away from the route to the toilets. There was more consternation when we slipped our moorings on Friday 13th – for where? Norway? Russia?  Some lads could even see their homes from the Clyde. My biggest shock was the toilets – for washing we were issued a bar of salt water soap, no hot water.  The toilet was communal and believed origin was ancient Rome.  It consisted of a very long plank with holes along its length suspended above a long torrent of rushing water.

 The days so far were uneventful on calm seas and we had acquired quite a big collection of ships; tankers, tramps and some lovely, grey-painted, liners.  Nearest to us was a Canadian Pacific three-funneled ‘Empress’ class.  Once we hit the Bay of Biscay life on board was more lively.  Complexions turned from rosy to grey, vomit was everywhere, some spending long periods on the plank, which was extremely busy.  If bacon was on for breakfast it caused a renewed rush to more contemplation of the torrent.  We did lose one overboard but the ship was not allowed to stop so just guess as to his fate.

 The weather and the sea got warmer and calmer.  The torrent’s clients got fewer.  Our immediate escorts, a pair of dolphins.  Occasionally depth charges were fired accompanied by a great wall of water.  Destroyers dashing up and down the convoy.  I was detailed to break coal in the depth of the ship, which was not to my liking.  Gradually we got our ‘sea legs’ and at night, sleeping on the deck, watching the graceful arc of the tip of the mast against the stars and looking at the phosphorescent wake was indeed the stuff of dreams. Then one night the lights of Morocco on the right and of Spain on the left as we threaded the ‘Pillars of Hercules’ – a lovely target for U-boats.  So, Algiers, Arabian nights, romance and magic beckoned us from a heavy sea and a grey day.

 On the 22nd we disembarked from SS Staffordshire.  Heavy sea running.  One of our lads was tied to a rope and he endeavoured to get a huge tire from the sea.  Why?  We hadn’t even got transport.  We assembled and Tiny le Peppit told us to report on the morrow.  So in dribs and drabs we went to sample the fleshpots of Algiers.  I bought some ‘Evening in Paris’; well we’d be back by Christmas! Later fortified by wine, and considerably sobered after seeing the toilets; a square with two places for feet and a pile of crap resembling a termite structure, was somewhat disheartening.  Three of us thought we would get a good nights rest on some stone steps leading to the beach.  It was cold and in the small hours the tide came in and flushed us out.  Soon dried out in the hot sun, we met up and marched to HMS Bicester, a Hunt Class destroyer.  So, with two other destroyers we were on our way again.  I was impressed by the speed. In the stern we seemed to be below the sea’s surface on account of the huge bow wave as she sliced through the sea.  We landed at Phillipville much nearer the front and from here joined the excursion at the railhead.

 We got into the cattle trucks; ’40 Hommes, 8 Chevaux’.  A Frenchman armed with a knife who was in the van tried to knife one of our lads but was soon overpowered and presented to the gendarmes.  Not relishing being one of the ‘Hommes’ I decided to travel in one of those quaint sentry box-like things at the back of the van, which served as lookout along the train. On the way to Souk el Arba, at the stops we piled out to the engine to get boiling water for a brew.  One sobering thought remains in my mind; we waited for an ambulance train from the front to pass by, coaches marked with the Red Cross. We had one coach with the adjutant and other officers on board.  The next stop was most embarrassing for me.  We were formed up and I was singled out for a public washing, as I stood out like a sore thumb.  I was the only coloured person in the Squadron, spending so long exposed to the smoke from the locomotive.  From then on I was one of the ‘Hommes’!

 At Souk el Arba, during an attack, we watched as a goat grabbed a freshly washed shirt off the line and ate it, despite the strafing!  The motorbikes were a bad choice for campaigns; ‘Matchless’ with telescopic forks that after a few weeks became jammed on the lower half and split; result – a rigid frame. Christmas Day was held in the barn-cum-mess.  The menu card had the Swift on the front and the menu inside.  It was a very good meal.

 Jan 25th – we move to Souk el Khemis not too far from Arba, only big problem was mud.  Just possible that we influenced the cancellation of an offensive on ‘Longstop Hill’.  In his book General Eisenhower stated his mind was made up by seeing several motor cyclists struggling with the mud.  The car road was on the Medjez el Bab to Mateur highway and the Top Brass was often seen on their inspections of the front.  The mud was really bad.  Many a time I had to take the rear wheel off as the mud had built up so thickly that the wheel wouldn’t turn.

 February 24th was a Panic Day.  Field Marshal Rommel launched his attack through Kasserine Pass and ‘Tiny’ assembled us all in the mess with the immortal words; “If Rommel continues his offensive we will all be up shit creek without a paddle.  Hint of destroying everything and be prepared”.  However, it didn’t come to that the usual strafing, the odd bomb, in fact, normalcy.

 Darryl Briggs passed through Sedjanane on the way to Cap Serrat shortly after the battle for the town:

 “I met a solitary Arab “going my way”, and so against rules and regulations I gave him a lift.  After many miles and somewhat near to my destination I told him as best I could he was on his own, and this was true.  It was a bleak landscape, no signs of life.  He was OK though, but it did puzzle me as to how he had endured the ride; no footrest, only a carrier instead of a seat and a hot exhaust pipe – the blighter was also barefoot!

Coming to Sedjenane I saw signs of a recent battle, dozens of Italian sun helmets with feathers as decorations were strewn around; I believe they were a Bersagliari unit.  German tanks, half tracks and trucks were burnt out – courtesy of 72?

 I again disregarded the rules and decided to inspect a half track which looked like an old charabanc as regards seating; it was also very badly burnt out.  Inside the drivers side was a type of slit pocket from which I got a huge revolver, a knife fork and spoon in a neat metal holder which incorporated a bottle opener (think of everything these Germans) which was much more practical than our loose ‘irons’ and two pay books.  One of these was for Paul Wiegers, who was my age, but born the month previous.

 Well, I got to Cap Serrat but they were not a very hospitable lot and I was glad to shake the dust off and ride into the sunset.  About half way back disaster struck; a flat rear tyre.  With no grass to stuff in the tyre I did attempt to carry on but in the end could go no further.  The tyre shredded and as I had not been issued with a carrier pigeon I was really ‘up the creek’.

 After an hour, smoking and thinking, an American jeep pulled up.  “What’s up buddy?”  They hoisted the bike on the jeep and took me to their camp, “Go get some chow, buddy.  One of our guys seen a French bike down a ravine, we’ll go take a look”.

 What a meal, loads of coffee, food as you only dreamed of, not a sign of bully beef and biscuits.  If there had been a recruiting officer there I would have been a GI.  Well, they got the wheel and as luckily it was the right size.  They even fitted it; great guys.  I cannot remember if I told Chiefy Arthur or Sgt Calver of my journey, but much sand and mud has passed since then!

 When we finally reached Tunis we had a field day in an aircraft graveyard.  Several Ju 52 mail planes full of mail.  Got some really valuable postcards showing Hitler, Mussolini and the Duke of Aosta, later taken by burglars back home.  In Tunis, in the queue for brothels were, amongst others, certain of our officers – still who knew what lay ahead. Another interlude was the great line of prisoners with hardly any guards.  Men of the Afrika Korps.




May 19 1919 - August 8 1989

Part One of a two part

feature by Gordon Wright

Bobby Oxspring (he preferred Bobby and was also known as 'OXO') did not have a silver spoon in his mouth, far from it, but he did have the benefit of a father, of the same name, who had been a WW1 flying ace, with 44 Squadron St Omer in 1917, who won an MC and bar and is recorded in Air Aces of the 1914-1918 War as having destroyed 16 German aircraft

 This family history gave him an absolute determination to get into the RAF as a pilot. His flying career started early in 1938 at No 4 E & R FTS (Elementary & Reserve Flying Training School) at Brough. He had his first solo flight after 4 hours 15 minutes. The next step was further training at Uxbridge, where 'bull' was very much in fashion and pounding parade grounds and skewering sacks with bayonets was believed to be essential in producing good pilots. After four weeks he was gazetted as an 'Acting Pilot Officer on Probation'.


 Qualifying early in 1939 he was assigned to 66 Squadron, at that time with Group 12 in Duxford, one of the first squadrons to be equipped with Spitfires. In his early experience of night flying with a Spitfire, he managed, on landing, to exit through a hedge, across a road and through another hedge - fortunately neither aircraft nor pilot was too badly upset

by the experience. He was briefly in on the tail end of the Dunkirk evacuation with 66

Squadron, although none of the squadron recorded any victories. His first successful action was a joint kill of a Heinkel 111. But pilots in Group 12 were often frustrated at not being involved in some of the action being seen by Group 11.Years afterwards a

few admitted they had felt aggrieved by Keith Park, who did not get on with Leigh Mallory of Group 12 – although later history was inclined to put more blame on Leigh Mallory. However, the structure of Fighter Command was intended to keep each Group self sufficient. Late in August, 66 Squadron at last got a posting to Group 11, where they were stationed at Kenley. September 5 and 6 were black days for 66, losing eight aircraft and six pilots in two days. On September 7, following the frustration of being vectored to find a 'mythical' enemy, 66 Squadron was given a short release from action for the rest of the day. The pilots took leave to go up to London, during which time one of the biggest German air raids of the war appeared - 350 bombers escorted by 600 fighters. The 66 Squadron pilots were left to observe, from the Catford Dog Racing Stadium, a great tumult with deafening noise as 20 squadrons of Hurricanes and Spitfires tore into the German host.


 The squadron was soon reassigned to Gravesend, as part of the Biggin Hill Wing, which was also comprised of 74 Squadron, commanded by 'Sailor' Malan and 92 squadron, both of which were stationed at Biggin. There was plenty of action over the next few days and Bobby shot down a Dornier 17 over Seaford in Sussex. First claimed as 'damaged', it was confirmed the next day by the Royal Observers Corp as crashed off Beachy Head (oddly enough this one doesn't show on his service record). On September 15 he shot down another Dornier and damaged two Heinkel 111s. On September 18 he destroyed one Me 109 and damaged another. September 24 he destroyed another Heinkel 111. September 27 he shot down an Me 110 and damaged a Dornier 215. September 30 another Me 109 met its fate at the hands of Bobby Oxspring. On October 5 he destroyed another Me 109 and further Me 109 on October 13. Numbers 66 and 92 Squadrons engaged a flight of Me 109s; Bobby shot one down and saw the pilot bale out. Forty years later he was introduced to that pilot, Leutnant Erich Bodendiek, a member of Jagdgeschwader 53, the famous 'Pik As' (Ace of Spades) Group. He had been flying a modified 109 with variable pitch prop, which had stuck at a fixed angle restricting his speed enough to prevent his escape to cloud cover. After all this successful action the moment Bobby had been dreading, but banished to the back of his mind, was approaching…On October 15 he was shot down. At the time he was leading B flight on a standing patrol over Maidstone, when six Me 109Es were spotted flying line abreast. With superior height advantage the six Spitfires, led by Bobby, tore down on them. Having selected his victim he chased him down. On the assumption that the other 5 Me 109Es had been selected by the other five Spitfires he continued the chase. In Bobby's own words, "We were creaming downhill and I could feel the high speed buffeting on the elevators and the ailerons stiffening up….when all hell broke loose." He had been violently hit and all directional control of the aircraft had gone. His struggle to bale out was prolonged and at one point he passed out. Eventually succeeding in leaving the Spitfire, he found his parachute rigging twisted, deploying  the canopy to only half its proper area. All his efforts brought a slight improvement, but two other parachutists who had been well below were soon above him!

He realised that his rate of descent was likely to break both his legs, or worse. However, after narrowly missing some high tension cables he came down in woods, where the foliage of an enormous tree saved him from the worst possible consequences. Rescued by the Home Guard hewas carted off to the Kent & Sussex General Hospital, where in his own words, "The super medical staff gave me a sympathetic going over, produced a most welcome four fingers of brandy and pronounced me fit for another adventure."


 November saw 66 Squadron move to Biggin Hill to join 74 and 92 Squadrons. The start of winter closed down most of the action, but by the turn of the year Fighter Command's strategy (with Dowding and Park gone) changed to taking the fight to the enemy on the Continent. This was the start of 'circuses', where a formation of bombers would be escorted by covering fighters intending to entice a response. This simply mirrored German tactics during the Battle of Britain and were to prove no more successful for the RAF than they had been for the Luftwaffe. The first such raid was led by 'Sailor' Malan with the three Biggin Hill squadrons and resulted in little enemy reaction. Meanwhile, the nightly blitz on London was continuing unabated. Night fighters were not effectively stemming the flow of German bombers. Finding targets in the dark for the RAF fighters was very difficult. As Bobby said, "I once saw the glow of engine exhausts beneath me, but when I turned to follow they melted into the blackness". The weather brightened up in February 1941 and long range sweeps to North West France were being made from Biggin Hill. On one of these Bobby narrowly escaped being shot down in an action with two 109s and his final "squirt" at one of the disappearing 109s was probably his last serious action for some time. Late in winter of 1941 66 Squadron was assigned to Exeter. As Bobby said, "We were very sorry to leave the activity and camaraderie of Biggin Hill only to be dumped into a relatively inactive West Country area".


 No. 66 Squadron found itself giving fighter cover to convoys in the Channel. Returning from one of these Bobby horrified himself by landing with his wheels retracted. After 500 hours of Spitfire flying without serious mistakes, the strain was probably beginning to tell, he was deemed tour-expired and posted to training duties with the OTU in Carlisle, as an instructor Canadians were flooding in, who urgently needed training on Hurricanes. One aspect of this period Bobby Oxspring was able to remember with pride was that two of his students went on to become wing leaders: George Keefer and Wally Conrad who, between them, accounted for 20 German aircraft shot down over the Western Desert and Europe. Bobby had been told that he wouldn't be returned to operational duties for a year, but late in the summer, after letter-writing and desperate pleading, he managed to get a posting to 616 Squadron in Group 11. His appointment was to fill the vacancy of flight commander for B flight, with Johnnie Johnson being flight commander of A flight. Bobby became a great admirer of Johnnie, both as a pilot and as a gentleman. His time with 616 Squadron at Westhampnett was very short-lived:

they were moved north for a rest and Bobby was asked if he wanted to stay in Group 11. Indeed he did, he still wanted more action, so he was offered 41 Squadron at Merston. The squadron was equipped with Spitfire MkVbs, with 20mm cannons. They were often engaged in 'rhubarbs', formations of two or four looking for opportunistic targets, including railway locomotives, river barges and shipping. No. 41 Squadron had lost its commander Elmer Gaunce, shot down and killed over Dieppe. He was to be replaced by South African, Piet Hugo, but on his arrival Bobby got the mumps and was never to fly with him. After finishing his sick leave he was promoted to command 91 Squadron at Hawkinge.


 No. 91 Squadron was part of the Biggin Hill Sector, at which time Captain Dicky Barwell was sector commander. They were a specialist reconnaissance squadron, equipped with the latest MkIIs to give them height and speed advantage, for which they had acquired the tab of 'Jim Crow'. 'Sailor' Malan had brought the Biggin Wing to such a pitch of efficiency, that when Bobby arrived to take command, 91 Squadron's morale was sky high. They usually flew the first and last sorties of the day on routine recces, known as 'Milk runs', to check on overnight movement of enemy shipping, with weather recces at 30,000ft over a large arc of enemy territory. The German capital ships Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Prinz Eugen had been bottled up in Brest, but if word got out that they were being moved to a less vulnerable port, operation 'Fuller' was the code word for immediate counter-action to be mounted by the Navy and Air Force. However, communication was so atrocious that the word never got down to Group 11. When Biggin Hill controller, Bill Igoe reported extreme activity in the Somme estuary, Bobby Oxspring selected Sergeant Beaumont and took off with him to investigate. They ran into three large ships, whose flak guns started firing at them; they also spotted two Spitfires firing at German E-boats in the outer screen. Realising the urgency of this information and not knowing the code word 'Fuller', Bobby broke radio silence to report back to Biggin Hill. This was not acted on. On landing Sergeant Beaumont, who had served in the RAF Marine Section, was convinced that one the ships was the Scharnhorst. Unfortunately the AOC of 11 Group, Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory was away and without the code word no one took them seriously. Thirty minutes later the two Spitfires they had seen attacking the E-boats, landed with the same story. Eventually after many delays the various commands were alerted. But by that time it was too late.The British sea and air blockade had been well and truly broken. Adolf Galland, who was responsible for the German air cover, admitted years later that he couldn't understand why (but was no doubt very grateful) British counter measures had taken a whole hour after they must have known the ships were on the move.


 Early in 1942 the Luftwaffe started to retaliate to the perpetual RAF operations over the occupied Continent, by beginning hit-and-run raids. In the Biggin Hill sector, counter measures fell on 91 Squadron, but interceptions were virtually nil. Bobby took his concerns to Biggin sector commander Dicky Barwell, who suggested, with BilI Igoe controlling, they should go out on a patrol to investigate where things were going wrong. Close to Beachy Head, Bill warned them of unidentified plots. Very soon they were attacked by two Spitfires and in spite of Bobby's desperate manoeuvre of flying head on at one of them, the other succeeded in shooting down Dicky Barwell. In a previous flying accident Dicky had broken his back, but had continued flying encased in plaster, which consequently restricted his movement. He came down in the Channel…no trace of him was ever found. A subsequent enquiry revealed that of the two pilots, one was on his first operational flight, the other on his second…neither being competent enough to recognise a Spitfire even at closest possible quarters. The loss of a very popular commander in such circumstances was a great blow to Biggin Hill. In WW2 about one-third of all air losses, on both sides, were caused by accidents or 'friendly fire'.

 Gordon Wright








 LANDON, Lawrence George, Flight Sergeant (561015, Royal Air Force) - No.72 Squadron - British Empire Medal - awarded as per London Gazette dated 17 September 1943. Public Record Office Air 2/8959, courtesy of Steve Brew, has citation. Mutilated document; some words uncertain.

"This airman has been in charge of an operational flight throughout the North African campaign. He has been a tower of strength [words missing] of a hazardous or arduous nature. His administrative [words missing] in his flight and in looking after his men at all [words missing] particularly good service as a result of which the lives of his men were saved by his prompt and effective first aid given after a land mine had exploded after an expedition to Thelepte."

NORTON, Raymond Cyril, Warrant Officer (526684, Royal Air Force) - No.72 Squadron - Member, Order of the British Empire - awarded as per London Gazette dated 17 September 1943. Public Record Office Air 2/8959, courtesy of Steve Brew, has citation.

"Warrant Officer Norton has been in charge of the Squadron Armoury Section since the summer offensives of 1941 and 1942 and throughout the campaign in North Africa. The standard of his work during this period has been consistently high. Recently his section created a new low record in gun stoppages with belt feed cannons. Warrant Officer Norton's skill and excellent control of his section have undoubtedly contributed materially to the operational success of his squadron."








 At Souk el Khemis in 1943 for washing our eating utensils etc we had a great square tank, hot water and no Fairy liquid to ‘protect our hands’!  Well, as soon as the plug was out the ground resembled a swamp with gallons of the ‘juice’ lying on it, which was no joke after a few days.

 So, I decided to do a spot of plumbing as I possessed a handy small trench digging tool, ex-U.S. military issue.  Next I had the cookhouse save me the large tins and small ones which, with my service jack-knife that included a handy tin opener, cut holes in the large tins to fit.  I punched holes in the base of the large tins so the water would leak into the ground.  (“What did you do in the war, Daddy?”).  Then with the entrenching tool I made a well fitting hole for the tin beneath the plughole.  Of course ‘Rome wasn’t built in a day’ as I had many hours of cutting, digging and assembly and as I got more proficient I added more sumps and junctions to carry the water a respectful distance from the source.  It was a success!

 Future archaeology bods, 1,000 year on, will puzzle over what the primitive tribe was getting at!



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