This is part of the life of me ex Corporal 1428187 L. Wigzell during World War 2 while being in the Royal Air Force.
There are no heroics in this story, just about one man who I’m told did his ‘bit’ in the R.A.F., did plenty of free travelling, did nothing heroic and was lucky enough to return home.
I think the bravest thing I did was to refuse to use the papers which would have kept me out of the Armed Forces and kept me in Civvy Street, although when I got home from India and Burma and saw the damage done to our country, I think that compared to what happened to me, Londoners were worst off.
Time has clouded my memories but I will try to keep this journal of events as orderly as possible.
I was living at home with my Mum and Dad and sister Ann, and courting my lovely Rose who eventually became my wife.
The bottom fell out of the Cabinet Making, and I got a job as a carpenter with the Anti-Attrition Metal company which was a Reserved Occupation, and I was making packing cases and crates, but after a time I began to feel unsatisfied as my old friend Len Nicholson who was in the Territorial Army had been called up and had been posted away.
I then got my own calling up papers and reported to the RAF place near Euston Station for interview. On reporting back to work I was asked where I had been and when I told the Boss he told me off for not taking my Exemption Papers, and after I got called up and visited the Anti-Attrition I was never allowed in, and I never did find out why.
After this I had papers to go for an Army interview just outside London and then had more papers to go for a R.A.F. interview, and to my relief, the Air Force got me!!
Eventually the R.A.F. sent for me and I went to RAF Cardington then on to a new RAF station at Yarmouth where with other carpenters who too had been posted there had to get the camp ready for more men to arrive.
I’m going too fast. I think I got my uniform and other kit at Cardington before going to Yarmouth, where we did plenty of drill with and without a rifle, and to do so I’ve never dressed and undressed in the street as I did then. We were told we would have a nice long route march (it’s quite a sight to see hundreds of men marching in columns trying to keep in step) then have rifle practice. I think we stopped on the outskirts of Yarmouth as it looked like a deserted amusement park. We were given Lee Enfield rifles marked D.P. ONLY (Drill purposes only) and fired at mountains of hastily piled sand.
I did the ordered amounts of shots and on the last one I saw something fly off in front of me, and on closing inspection found that half of the woodwork had blown off the rifle (D.P. ONLY!!!).
At Yarmouth I sent home a box of locally caught and cooked kippers which I’m told went down well.
This didn’t last long and I was posted to RAF Henlow as a carpenter for a short time from where I got a spot of short leave. I was there for a few months doing night work making dihedral wooden strutting for the Wellington Bombers or that was what I was told it was for. After work me and several others had to sleep in beds of men who were on leave, which wasn’t very nice, in barracks, so I was glad to be posted again.
From Henlow I was posted to I think 61MU (Maintenance Unit) near Manchester. It was a huge site and took in several farms, and we were billeted with civilians. My mate and I were with the Mr & Mrs Chambers who were very nice people. My mate was soon posted away, and one night the Chambers asked me to go for a drink with them, but had to go out of the district as women in pubs were very much frowned upon. Anyway we went into the big empty lounge in the country pub which soon filled up with soldiers, so being the only Airman there, I was glad to go back home with the Chambers.
I was billeted in Cheadle Hulme and was driven to and from the worksite in 3 ton lorries. It was here that I played football for the first time in months and believe me, next morning I was so stiff I had to be lifted into the back of the lorry. It was a good game.
The lorry transport was soon stopped and we were issued with bicycles which we signed for and painted with site colour scheme on the front. The bikes were very handy and one day I lent my bike to one of my mates who actually lived near the work site to go home for dinner. Apparently he was racing another bod and hit a gatepost at the entrance to the site. This bent the crossbar in such a way that I then rode the bike dead upright.
Next time the RAF Service policeman at the guardhouse saw me he had a good laugh and nicknamed me The Duke. I must say that by this time I was married to my lovely Rose, and henceforth after that when I went to the Guard House for my leave pass, he always said ‘Hello Duke, I see you are going home to the Duchess’.
The Bike was very handy when going on leave as I used to cycle from the camp to the Chambers house leave the bike in their shed and pick it up on my way back after leave. On going on leave I would travel home by train to London on free rail warrant, back to Manchester or Stockport by night train, then go round to the local GPO sorting office usually about 4 a.m. and get a lift with the Postman on his van back to Cheadle Hulme, and pick up my bike from the Chambers.
I remember one morning at 4 a.m. I was cycling back in a thick morning mist and bashed straight into a hedge and I landed on the other side. I reckon that that bike was glad to see the back of me!
Leave was always great but always went too quickly. Like many married couples at that time, Rose and I lived with my Mum and Dad and sister Ann, and when I went back from leave, Dad used to see us to the Elephant Underground station, and used to turn his back while Rose and I had a quick cuddle. Dad was a soldier in the First World War, so he knew the score. Mum and Dad always looked on Rose as a daughter.
There were regular guard duties to do on the camp, and one time I got the night off because I was the smartest on parade, but I don’t know how that happened.
There were 50 or 60 carpenters on the site which had only just opened. We were in a big hangar, quite a lot of machinery and a dozen or so carpenters’ benches, and lots of tools and timber.
We were allotted so many men to a bench and the first bench men had the job to mark out the timber to make tool boxes (which we didn’t have). The joints were dove-tails, and by the time they got to the bench I was on, I immediately saw that the dove-tails were marked out wrong so I said : ‘What rat chewed out these joints?’
This caused quite a commotion, I was surrounded by irate Airmen who wanted my blood. The noise caused the N.C.O.s in charge to come marching up but luckily for me the Flight Sergeant knew his joints and I was in the clear. New Timber was supplied, marked out and cut out properly, and the tool boxes were made!!
The sequel to this story happened a few years latter after the war when I was demobbed and working at Birkbeck College once again as a carpenter (I must point out that before the war I was trained as a Cabinet Maker at a College in Shoreditch) and I worked as such until the War knocked the bottom out of that work.
Anyway, at Birkbeck College I went to the local timber merchant to place an order, and as I turned the corner there was a man who I recognised as one of my old tool box maker friends, and he was on his knees cutting a hole for a letterbox so I got behind him and said : ‘What rat chewed out these joints?’
To my amazement he just turned his head and said ‘Hello Lou’ as though it was just the other day instead of at least 5 years after the incident at the RAF carpenters shop. He was Jack Martin and we were friends while at that site in the RAF, and in fact worked on making a stage in one of the big hangars but I was posted away so don’t know if it was finished. I met Jack several times after the letterbox meeting as he lived about 5 minutes walk from Birkbeck College, but we lost touch.
Before this, I was working in the RAF hangar making as usual packing cases and crates when in came a dozen or so RAF men from Wilmslow which was a big depot for overseas personnel and was quite near to our site. Their draft for overseas had been cancelled with a lot of others and they came to us for a time to help out with the work. Naturally I asked if any of them were carpenters, and that’s how I met Phil Saker. We worked together for a time and I showed him how to make crates and packing cases which believe me have to be made properly. After a short time Phil went overseas.
This story also has a sequel which I’ll tell you children later.
By this time I had been in the RAF about 18 months and now and again I got the urge to go home for a day, going back to camp every night.
On days off we were allowed to go quite a good number of miles from the camp site, but on reflection I think I went a bit more than I should have done without a pass, so I had to be a bit aware of the RAF police.
I remember one day I got to the railway station which I think was London Road Manchester. The station was very quiet, so I walked along the train looking for a seat but instead I saw a long line of RAF cops coming my way; so I jumped into the first seat and was on my way and was OK.
Another time I was sitting in the compartment chatting to an army officer who was quite a nice chap. When we got to Waterloo I offered to carry one of his cases, so we walked out of the station like dear old friends! I think it was Waterloo Station but the Underground station was closed for some reason, so I walked over the Waterloo Bridge. I said I think it was that bridge, but it was a rather dark night and I finished up walking all the way home to the Old Kent Road.
Another time I was going back to the Camp after a crafty day at home. It was about 10 p.m. I was amongst a crowd of fellow travellers and was about 20 feet from the gate to the platform when I was stopped by 2 RAF police who asked to see my pass. This was a bit awkward, but as I was fumbling through my pockets for the non-existent pass, a young WAAF (Womens Auxiliary Air Force) dropped to the floor in front of us: the cops got down to assist her, and I was on my way. I know it wasn’t very gallant of me, but I am sure the young lady saw my predicament and she acted accordingly. At least I’ve always consoled myself with that thought, and have always mentally thanked her for her help.
With the home leave we were allowed in the RAF plus the ones I allowed myself, I must admit I was home quite a lot. Being married to my Rose, I had 5 Brothers-in-law, and they with others thought it was cushy as they thought I was always on leave, and I must admit I was lucky to get away with it; but I must have trod on somebodys’ toes because I was put on the boat shortly after that.
I almost forgot. I was going back to camp one night after being on proper leave, and the ticket collector took all the tickets just before we got to Cheadle Hulme, which had never been done before. As we got off at Cheadle Hulme we all had our names and numbers taken and reported to the RAF. Luckily after a time they checked up and we were cleared of any wrongdoing. So as you can see, you can’t tell how things will turn out.
When being posted away from any Camp, one has to be cleared which means you go to every department on the Camp so that they can make sure you are not owing anything to Pay Accounts, and make sure you have all the clothing and kit you should have; make sure you are in good health and have all the jabs and inoculations etc. at the hospital, so it’s quite a job.
I think I’ve said that it was a big Camp, so the old bicycle came in handy. While cycling from one office to the other, I was stopped by the RAF Police who said I had stoken the bike, but having assured them that the colours painted on the bike were the right ones for my Camp, they then got in touch with the Orderly Officer of my Camp, who told them the bike was signed out to me. That was very good, but I think they didn’t want to hold up the War by putting me in clink.
I think I have already said that I was eventually called up about June of 1941, so before then I was in Civvy Street and saw some of the bombing of cour country.
While working at the anti-attrition making packing cases, I also made and fitted seats to the air-raid shelters which came in handy as I went into the shelters like everyone else while the raids were on. One day we were hoisting timber up to the 3rd floor balcony when a raid was on and it was a bit awkward having a big bundle of timber hanging on a length of rope about 40 feet up the building, so we did the right thing and stacked it away as timber was hard to get hold of.
Another time I was on the inside stairwell about half way up when the sirens went. I looked out of the window and saw the enemy planes, and could even see the bombs falling, so I got down those stairs pretty quickly.
At home we had an Anderson shelter; we dug into the ground at the end of the garden, covered it over with the soil we had dug out to bury it in a bit and then grew some veg on it, and also other veg in other parts of the garden.
I made and fitted bunks in the shelter to make it a bit comfy and Rose used to use it with my family before and after we got married. Being very close to the railway marshalling depot, we got a good share of the bombing and could usually see what the trains were loading with by the assorted debris that was blown over into our garden.
One night I was about to go down the shelter when a big frightened dog came at me, and believe me, it frightened me much more than the air raid. Most of the houses in our street were badly damaged, including ours; in fact all the houses at the back of ours were made into a bomb disposal training centre, and there seemed to be bombs all over the place.
It came in handy those houses being bombed and empty, for when Rose and I got married my Dad, myself and Len Nicholson (who was our best man) simply ran straight up our garden into the one at the back, and straight through into the church in Avondale Square. The bombs in the houses were plain to see and I’m glad to say they had been defused!
The Church had been badly bombed, great lumps of masonry all over the place, but the Church inside had been cleaned as much as possible, and looked a bit sad, but it soon brightened up when Rose walked in for she looked absolutely gorgeous, and I realised then and since then, how lucky I was to have her as my wife.
After the ceremony we went to Mum Cherry’s house for the reception and a Party and it all went off brilliantly. After that we walked back to Marlborough Grove to live with my Mum and Dad and my sister Ann, to the accompaniment of the sirens heralding another air raid which certainly stirred things up. I think I was home for a week before going back to Camp.
Rose and I managed to have a few weeks leave together before I got put on the boat and had to go through the clearance channels. There was no chance of Rose and I getting a place of our own, there seemed to be more houses in ruin than any others, so I was glad that Rose was living with my Mum and Dad, as I knew they would look after her, for they looked on Rose as their own daughter.
It is now time for me to go abroad and get brown at the Government’s expense.