THE HALL OF HONOURS
SOME REMINISCENCES BY ERIC - AN OLD WARTIME AIRMAN
The Medals of Eric, formerly R.A.F. Warrant Officer 1st Class
© Hendrik Meersschaert, 2000 - 2017
It was in the early nineteen forties that I joined the Royal Air Force and, in common with all new entrants, was accorded the lowest possible ranking, that of aircraftman second class, group five. I was then directed for training as an aero engine mechanic; a subject of which I was totally ignorant. Following the customary basic course of drills and handling of light weapons, I was dispatched to RAF St Athan in South Wales, there to commence the aero engine course. Almost immediately I developed a total fascination with the subject of engines and their ancillary components. On reflection, I think that this attachment of interest, and the subsequent dedication to study that it generated within me, was due in some measure to the excellent quality of tuition provided by both Air Force and civilian instructors. St Athan is not far from the city of Cardiff, and it was here that we trainees spent any off duty time we were given. This gave me opportunity to spend most of my spare cash, which was little enough, on books dealing with aero engines and related topics such as carburetors, hydraulics, fuels, hydromatic propellers, etc. I was proud and delighted when I passed the end of course examination with the rank of aircraftman first class, group two.
Following my first week of home leave, I proceeded to the operational station to which I had been posted, RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire; this was the location of number 103 heavy bomber squadron equipped with Lancaster aircraft. Here I was allocated to "A" flight, where I joined the crew responsible for maintenance of the engines and airframe of one of the Lancasters. Following each flight it was our responsibility to carry out a series of inspections, to make any repairs or adjustments of types that lay within our recognised skills, or alternatively, to refer more complex matters to our immediate superiors.
It was also our responsibility to replenish fuel and oil in accordance with stated requirements. Some other maintenance personnel had responsibility for a group of aircraft and included electricians, instrument technicians and armourers. As the aircraft stood in dispersed locations in the open air our work was sometimes carried out in pretty poor weather conditions. Moreover, working hours were extended whenever night raids took place as it was necessary for some of us to be present when the aircrews came out to commence an operation in order to assist with start up, use and removal of external batteries and chocks; also someone had to be on duty to receive the aircraft and guide it in to position on its return in the early hours of the morning. We were lucky to get one day off duty per month. But we harboured no feelings of complaint or deprivation for we were all too conscious of the dependence placed upon us by those venturing over enemy territory, and the requirement to exert ourselves to the utmost to ensure that they undertook their missions in fully serviceable machines.
One day, there came along opportunity for a complete change of scene. The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force had concluded that temporary exchange of small parties of their personnel would provide experience that was mutually beneficial. I applied to participate in this scheme along with five other airmen on our station, and we were all accepted. By now I was a leading aircraftman, and as such I was put in charge of the party. We travelled to a Scottish port; there we embarked on HMS Archer, a small escort aircraft carrier and submarine hunter, which then sailed out to patrol duty in the Atlantic.
It was a wonderful, adventurous experience for we young landlubbers, and provided us much material with which to regale our companions back in Elsham when we returned to base a few weeks later.
An incident in strong contrast to our enjoyable sojourn with the Royal Navy occurred one evening not long before the squadron was due to take off on an operation. I was at the dispersal point at which I worked together with other of my fellow ground crew members, awaiting the arrival of the aircrew. At the adjoining dispersal, about a hundred metres away, another Lancaster stood ready for departure. It was the practice to leave the bomb doors open until the aircrew arrived so that the bomb aimer could check the loading pattern before the doors were closed. Shortly after the aircrews came out some form of electrical failure occurred in the aircraft standing on the adjoining dispersal which caused the whole bomb load to drop to the ground. The largest bomb weighed 1800 kilogram, along with it were several 450 high explosive bombs. None of these was fully primed and therefore did not explode. However, the aircraft had further bombs in the form of incendiaries held in containers. The latter were activated by the fall and began to burn fiercely. At first, both air and ground crew attempted to kick the incendiaries away from the main bomb load but without success. Then up came the tractor driver and attached his towing bar to the aircraft's tail wheel in attempt to tow it clear of the increasing conflagration. The aircraft would not budge; the brakes were on. The tractor driver courageously decided to enter the aircraft in order to release the brakes and had to be physically restrained from doing so, for the situation was by this time becoming desperate. Then came a call from someone "Run ! She's going to go". No one needed a second bidding. The explosion when it came was terrifying. Added to the explosive potential of the bombs was something in the region of 7,500 litres of petrol, plus ammunition for the guns. I, travelling at Olympic speed for the first and only time, had cleared a fence and entered a field before being blown flat. A chunky piece of metal landed about half a metre from me. Not unexpectedly, there were fatalities and injuries. Aircraft attempting to taxi clear of the area were hit and in one the wireless operator was killed. The scene of devastation around the dispersal was unbelievable; one of the engines had landed some three hundred metres away and much of the aircraft was unrecognisable. Because the demand for maximum effort with the bombing offensive was constant it was not long before all was restored and the squadron back in full operation. We were all pleased when some time later the tractor driver was decorated with the BEM (British Empire Medal, now obsolete) for his show of bravery in attempting to save the aircraft. As for myself, I still suffer a strong aversion to loud bangs.
After several months with 103 Squadron I decided to seek training as a flight engineer. In due course I was summoned to attend the various aircrew examinations for both mental and physical fitness. Later, I learned that I had been accepted and was then directed to proceed back to St Athan to begin aircrew training. The power units, mechanical, hydraulic and electrical services fitted to four-engined aircraft varied between one type and another, e.g. Lancaster, Stirling, etc. Consequently, flight engineers were trained to operate on a specific make of aircraft. I was selected for the Liberator bomber course and having completed this successfully I received my Engineer's wing and became a sergeant. I was posted to an operational training unit in the south of England, but remained there only a short time before being given embarkation leave.
We set sail in the liner "Strathmore" which had been converted to a troopship. From the medical injections given and the equipment issued to us it was obvious that we were heading for the tropics. Conditions on the ship were extremely cramped and became difficult to bear when about three weeks on we entered the Indian Ocean. We eventually disembarked in Bombay, where our small party of flight engineers was conveyed to a nearby transit camp. It was here that we suffered our first casualty for within a short time we lost one of our companions through his having contracted cerebral malaria. Following several weeks of inactivity, orders came to proceed to Calcutta by train and from there to RAF station Salbani in Bengal, where two Liberator squadrons were based, numbers 355 and 356. My posting was to number 355. The journey across India by train extended over four days with many halts, during which time we had opportunity to view something of the variety of life style and environment in part of the Indian continent. Aside from impressions of people and places an abiding memory of that journey is that of the spectacle of firefly displays at night. By the time we reached Salbani, following a stay in Calcutta and a second train journey, we were somewhat dishevelled and travel weary so that it was pleasing to find that reasonable accommodation awaited us, plus the services of a shared bearer (servant) to attend to personal needs, such as having our clothing washed.
It was not long before we took to the air in practice flights though, much to our dismay, not in our prescribed role but solely as supernumerary crew. We rapidly gained the impression that the station hierarchy had little concept of either the purpose or capability of flight engineers. The aircraft position which we had expected to occupy was on this station taken by a second pilot. After some time we were informed that it had been decided to make use of us as ball gunners; a role for which we had no degree of training. Much to our distaste we engineers were then sent out on patrol flights over the Bay of Bengal in anticipation that we might fulfill a function for which we were totally unprepared. The ball turret in a Liberator was lowered beneath the aircraft during flight and there was no escape from it without the assistance of other crew members. It was fitted with two 13mm machine guns situated on either side of the gunner, he lying in horizontal pre-natal attitude. I am not sure which troubled me the more, the certainty of my total incompetence in the face of attack, or the risk of complete erasure in the event of a belly landing.
After several weeks the attempt to convert us into gunners was abandoned. There soon followed instruction that we were to be transferred to the Middle East theatre, where apparently there was need for flight engineers. The path of our journey westward was somewhat torturous.
First to Allahabad, then to Bhopal, where I was taken ill with ringworm and dysentery and put into hospital. On recovery, I rejoined the party of itinerant engineers. Travel orders sent us to Hyderabad then down through the Sind desert to Poona, thence back to Worli camp Bombay. Finally to Karachi from where we were flown to Cairo, stopping overnight at the Shatt Al Arab hotel in Iraq. This latter part of our journey was undertaken in most luxurious style in one of the flying boats used by pre-war Imperial Airways and was taken in the company of diplomatic staff, high ranking officers and others of similar standing. We literally came down to earth on the night of our arrival in Cairo when we found ourselves lodged in a rather dishevelled former hotel. Some days later we were given orders to proceed to Palestine, there to join new crews from Britain currently undergoing their operational training on old Wellington bombers. I was sent to El Qastina to be crewed with a Sergeant Smith, an exceedingly pleasant young fellow. After three or four trips over the Mediterranean our navigator was failed for incompetence and the crew broken up. I then joined the crew of Sergeant Burns, all of whom managed successful completion of the course, but not before one of the ancient Wellingtons we flew had to be landed with only one main wheel lowered. Then, it was another move westward to Abu Sueir in Egypt for conversion to Liberator bombers. My former experience with this aircraft resulted in my being partially used in an instructional capacity with some of the new flight engineers.
It was when I was still at Elsham Wolds that one night, when most of us were off duty, a Lancaster bomber was heard racing up the runway with an engine misfiring badly. Several of us rushed out of our hut in time to see the aircraft stagger into the air then gradually roll until its right wingtip struck the ground and it exploded in a burst of flame. We ran across intervening fields to attempt possible rescue but managed to pull clear only the rear gunner. Six other men perished. The crew was new to the station and was to engage in a practice night exercise. Investigation revealed that an engine on the right (starboard) wing had failed during take off.
This should not have resulted in disaster since the aircraft was unladen and totally capable of flying on the three remaining engines. Sadly; the flight engineer had failed to correctly identify the failed engine and had stopped (feathered) the good engine on the starboard side. At that low altitude the disastrous result that ensued was inevitable.
When I became a flight engineer, I cherished the hope that I would never find myself in similar circumstance, but fate decreed otherwise. While at Abu Sueir my skipper, Jock Burns, and I were practising landings and take offs at night. My station was the second pilot's seat on the flight deck, the rest of the crew were at their respective stations. As we approached flying speed on one of the take off runs there were sounds of engine failure on the starboard side. We became airborne with Jock holding hard on the controls against the drag of the dead engine while I rapidly scrutinised the engine gauges on the starboard side and checked through the window for signs of engine fire in order to ascertain beyond doubt that number 4 engine failed. With the pilot's agreement I then "feathered" number 4, the drag ceased and we flew safely on to complete a circuit and land safely. The crucial decision we had to make was made in probably less than a minute. I often wondered how near I might have come to misjudgement in that situation had I not been so acutely conscious of the error made by a fellow aviator some years before.
On completion of the course at Abu Sueir, our crew was flown to Naples and later taken to RAF Foggia Main by motor truck. Foggia was a large operational station housing both British and American squadrons. Our crew was assigned to 104 squadron. Following a few familiarisation flights we started on night operations against targets in Northern Italy, Austria and Jugoslavia. We were fortunate in suffering only light damage to our aircraft and none to any crew member. There was on occasions very heavy anti-aircraft fire from such locations as Innsbruck, Fiume and Pola. Moreover, throughout these flights we had to keep a wary eye open for German night fighters; the gunners, in particular, their turrets in watchful sweeps. At times that we felt vulnerable to air attack the wireless operator would go back to the beam position; at which a 13mm machine gun was mounted by either side window. From this position he could, when necessaary, throw out packets of "window" - strips of metallic foil designed to confuse enemy radar readings. If a crew member saw, or thought he saw, a hostile aircraft he would give the alarm and the pilot would take evasive action by twisitng, turning and diving the aircraft; normally in accordance with one of the accepted patterns of evasive action. If a crew member had the enemy in sight, he would offer guidance to his pilot on its relative bearing and manoeuvering tactics. The height of vulnerability was probably that we felt when undertaking the bombing run in the target area as this necessitated straight and level flying to allow the bomb aimer to accurately align the path of the aircraft towards the aiming point using his bomb aiming instruments. Coincident with the release of the bombs was the release of a high powered photo flash and the operation of the aircraft camera Night bombing of Malalbergo on 19/20 April 1945.that recorded the scene below; these photos, together with aircrew reports, and possible later reconnaissance, enabled intelligence officers to evaluate the consequences of a sortie.
When the war in Europe ended there was a general "stand down" for most military units though we in 104 squadron were deprived of that short period of rest. During the final days of conflict the allied ground forces had moved forward so far, and so rapidly that they had outdistanced their supply lines. We Liberator crews with our relatively wide bodied aircraft were required to load supplies varying from food to petrol and fly them to Lavariano in northern Italy. There was no metalled runway there, just a wide open grass field; hardly the surface on which to land machines weighing 30 tons, and to continue to do so for a period of days.
After a few weeks our aircraft were modified to carry passengers. Wooden seats were fixed on either side of the bomb bay, which had a cat walk through the centre that linked the flight deck with the rear section of the aircraft. Passengers sat facing outward toward the bomb bay doors, which were similar to a roll top desk in their action, but had, of course, been disabled for purposes of passenger transit. We were able to carry about thirty people in this primitive fashion. Our early trips were to places like Belgrade to collect deported French workers and return them to France. It was a distressing job. On arrival in Jugoslavia we had to herd these pathetic people into the aircraft under the watchful, not over friendly eye of Tito's red starred infantry. Many of our passengers were in poor state of health, weary looking, and hollow eyed, some of the women were pregnant. All were poorly attired. We flew them to Istres, adjoining Marseilles. There hundreds of people were waiting, desperately hoping for sight of a loved one among the dis-emplaning throng. There were scenes of joyous reunion mixed with heart rending sorrow among those who had waited long and once again faced disappointment. Our first and very necessary duty was to take the aircraft to be disinfected, then to undergo similar precautionary treatment ourselves.
There were many other kinds of trips, flying troops, nurses, and others to Glatton in England, South African Armoured Division personnel to Cairo West, soldiers from Athens back to Italy. Meanwhile, we learned that we were to be equipped with new aircraft, namely the latest version of the Lancaster bomber. This was so that we might form part of Tiger Force, which was being prepared for extension of the assault on Japan. In the event, we never made it out east for the dropping of the atom bombs obviated requirement for that move.
It was about this time that I received early promotion to the rank of warrant officer, first class. I also took on the duties of Flight Engineer Leader in the long term absence of the regular Leader. Because I had knowledge of the Lancaster bomber from my days at Elsham Wolds I was asked to lecture to aircrew on features of the aircraft, as it was known that we were due to be re-equipped with these machines despite the surrender of the Japanese. Flying duties continued both for transport purposes and training. In my new capacity I was now flight engineer to the squadron's Commanding Officer. He was perhaps finding life a little boring since hostilities had ceased and decided that he would like to break the squadron height record, which then stood at about 8500 metres. It was a bright sunny day when we took off from Foggia heading for Treviso. To the surprise of most of the crew we learned that we were to carry a passenger, a young aircraftman unaccustomed to flying. We took off, headed north and, in keeping with normal practice, donned oxygen masks at a height of 3500 metres; I made sure that our passenger was connected to the system. I never knew exactly what went wrong, but as we neared record breaking height I saw that the young airman was in distress. I quickly attached myself to a portable oxygen bottle, and moved across the flight deck, gave the boy emergency oxygen, reset his controls, and made sure that he was in no further danger. This took a little time
and the endurance of my portable bottle was but five minutes. I managed to regain my seat, and remembered no more until I shot back to consciousness with anxious faces peering into mine. Evidently, on getting back to my seat I had passed out before being able to reconnect to the main oxygen system. Had it not been for the Wing Commander turning to ask my advice about engine performance as we floundered through the thin air at around 9000 metres, that might have been my last trip.
Early in 1946 the squadron received orders to move to Abu Sueir in Egypt. This was good news for Abu Sueir being a permanent Royal Air Force station we could look forward to occupying stone built billets, furnished with well equipped ablutions and, in addition, to camp shops, a snack bar and a camp cinema. All this a welcome change from the accomodtion in Foggia, where we were located in tents, where sanitary facilities were crude and remote, and our mess was located in a small farmhouse. An upturned steel helmet standing outside on a bomb fin was our washbasin; our shower bath was an old oil drum standing on stilts from which a homemade shower head projected. Our beds were in a variety of designs, mostly fabricated from pieces of crashed aircraft, ropes and canvas; the RAF provided the thin mattress.
The bulk of the squadron's small equipment was moved to Egypt by air. There was also the task of flying personnel to their new station and it was in this task that the Wing Commander participated when moving over to Egypt himself. With a full load aboard we took off and headed east. Responsibility for the loading of the aircraft was mine and I instructed the gunner acting in the role of steward as to his duties. He was to remain in the beam position, a deck situated behind the bomb bay at the rear of which was the toilet. Because the seating in the bomb bay was cramped, gloomy, noisy and uncomfortable, he was permitted to allow a maximum of five passengers at a time (including anyone using the toilet) to come up to the beam position to stretch their legs and enjoy the view from the windows. As was my custom, I laid stress on the maximum of five at the beam position, a greater number was likely to upset the balance of the aircraft. We proceeded without incident over the Mediterranean and as we had reached the vicinity of Crete the Wing Commander said to me "Take over, I'm just going to take a look aft". At the time, we were flying on automatic pilot, the Minneapolis Honeywell model, which was probably one of the best, if not the best, in operation in those days. It was only a matter of a minute or two after the skipper left the flight deck that the aircraft suddenly started to climb at an alarming rate while the airspeed dropped off rapidly and dangerously. I was alone at the controls; my first thought was failure of the auto pilot, I quickly threw the master switch to off and took over manual control in attempt to push the nose down. The effort required was enormous, with back wedged against the seat I had all the physical strength I could muster thrust against the control column. Just as I began to gain a degree of correction to aircraft attitude the wireless operator came to my aid, jumped into the pilot's seat and exerted more pressure from that position. Together we brought the aircraft into level flight. While this was going on the Wing Commander was attemting to retrace his steps up the steeply inclined catwalk and against the increased gravitational force. It was only when he reached the flight deck we learned what had occurred to almost cause stalling of the aircraft, the result of which would have sent the big bomber spinning into the sea, with hardly any hope of escape for either passengers or crew.
When the Wing Commander went back and reached the beam position he found it to be occupied by well over the limit of five persons. In moving back he had himself contributed sufficient extra weighting to the rear of the aircraft to seriously upset the forces of aerodynamic balance which in turn caused the auto pilot to be overridden. By dint of hand signals from the front of the catwalk I managed to convey that I wanted all passengers back in their seats. What I said to the gunner when I later went down to the beam position is better left unrecorded. I have since often reflected that if the worst had happened our disappearance would have gone down in aviation annals as one of those unexplainable disasters we sometimes read about.
Shortly after we had become established at Abu Sueir, the Wing Commander was briefed to survey an air route from Egypt to Kenya. We left early one morning carrying a full aircrew plus three Liberator groundcrew to ensure that we had resource to competent servicing en route. As we flew down the Red Sea the Wing Commander called up the navigator to ask how far we were from Mecca. When given the distance, he asked for a course for Mecca and when we arrived over that most holy of cities he circled the aircraft around while photographs were taken. We then resumed our original course for RAF Kormaksohr in Aden. As we approached for landing, the speed control on one of the engines failed. Though we landed without much difficulty, we knew that our journey could not continue until a replacement speed unit had been obtained. As this item was not immediately available we were delayed for two days awaiting arrival of the new component.
Our next destination was Mogadishu, the capital of what was then Italian Somaliland. Here we were located in a hotel which was excellent in both accommodation and menu; we ate in most splendid fashion that evening. Next day we departed for our ultimate destination, Eastleigh airport in Kenya. On this flight we came low and enjoyed most enchanting views of the territories below and the wild life that then inhabited them in profusion. Our stay in Kenya lasted only a day or two so that we had little opportunity to see much of the country at ground level. The Wing Commander did manage a short safari excursion and obtained a photo of a giraffe; a copy of which I still possess. Flying north again our only staging post was at Hargeisa, south of the Gulf of Aden. On return to base there was trouble for the Wing Commander. Our aircraft had been identified and a formal complaint lodged with British authorities about the flight over Mecca.
The Station Commander, a Group Captain, ordered that all photographs taken over the city be destroyed, and assumed that would be done. On hearing what had happened, several of our companions were at pains to point out that it was likely that over the coming years our errant crew of infidels would be trailed by Arab assassins and each singled out to be waylaid and knifed in the back in some dark, deserted alleyway. So far, I have avoided this fate.
Within a week or two of returning from that trip we received a new Squadron Commander, Wing Commander L.W.V. Jennens, OBE. He was totally different from his predecessor, a tough, rugby playing enthusiast, bluff in manner and with little sympathy for inefficiency or liking for formality or the drudgery of administrative work. Give him a rugby ball, or an aeroplane, and he was in his element. About four years of his war had been spent as a prisoner in the Stalag Luft from which fifty escapees were shot on the orders of Hitler. An impression of the impact made by the new Squadron Commander is given by the following extract from the squadron history:
His first appearance was on morning parade, with the squadron formed up and standing to attention. This giant of an individual strode out of the Headquarters building and frightend us all with his demeanour. We were certain that this was the man who was going to punish the squadron for its manifold misdeeds.
"104 Squadron all present and correct, Sir" said the Adjutant with a cracking salute.
The Wingco returned the salute and said in a loud voice "Thank you Adjutant" pause - stage whisper - "What the bloody hell am I supposed to do now?"
After a whispered exchange, the Ensign was raised with due ceremony. He then turned to the ranks - "OK chaps - parade dismiss"
After that, we'd do anything for him - and we did. Serviceability shot up, and it seemed as if our whole life had been transformed.
Coincident with the new Wing Comander was the arrival of Lancaster aircraft of the latest type. Though they lacked the spaciousness and comfort of our old Liberators, their performance was superior in every respect. I was now re-allocated to fly with a Flight Commander, Squadron Leader Johnson, DFC and Bar. There was a touch of nostalgia in being once again associated with the Lancaster, for which I had great regard, and my reunion with that aircraft was all the more pleasing because this time my involvement was in a flying capacity. However, it was a relatively short lived relationship for the Squadron Leader was posted back to England and the crew broken up. This change occurred just at the time that Wing Commander Jennens decided that he needed someone to assist with certain branches of administration; his eye fell on me. I was taken off flying duties, given an office in the administrative block, and set to work.
As already mentioned, the good Jennens had no stomach for office duties so that files I referred to him would pile up in his office over a period of days. Then, overcome by the frustration of their growing presence, I would receive a stentorian call to his presence - our offices were separated by those of the Adjutant and the Administrative Officer. I hastening up and standing to attention "Sir" would hear the inevitable request "Sit down, and let's get through these bloody papers" "Yes Sir". It was inevitable that the waste basket proved to be the source to which a proportion of items were referred. When summoned to the Jennens office on hot afternoons there could be an alternative response to my "Sir", which would be "Is that Groppi's ice cream man I hear ?" "Yes Sir" "Then be a good fellow and go and get a couple".
Came the Spring of 1946 and the Squadron was on the move again; this time to Shalufa in the canal zone. Here, the Wing Commander was to be also the Station Commander and I was appointed Station Warrant Officer, a post normally occupied by very senior personnel. I was just twenty three. The responsibilities of the S.W.O. include general oversight of many matters appertaining to the rank and file, including day to day routines, general and personal requirements and, not least important, discipline. He is the link between the senior non-commissioned officers and the commissioned officers, in particular the Adjutant and the Commanding Officer. He is addressed as "Sir" by the rank and file and as "Mister" by the officers.
I set about my new task with enthusiasm. In addition to about a thousand other ranks I had responsibility for a hundred prisoners, fifty German, fifty Italian; all were engaged in duties around the camp. There was marked contrast between the two. The Germans extremely formal, their tents in as smart a state as conditions permitted, while the Italians were rather more easy going, their quarters having very much a "lived in" appearance. Apart from training exercises the squadron had few calls upon it. I recall one or two occasions when on a quiet afternoon I found myself to be the senior person on camp; the Wing Commander and all the officers having gone off to visit other stations, or clubs in Port Suez. It was on a day such as this that I lost a German prisoner, one Hans Mandel. He was one of a party that had gone to a nearby station with a lorry load of items, and failed to return. As soon as I was notified of his absence I made several telephone calls and eventually traced him, and had him back in camp under arrest before the return of the senior officers. It transpired that Hans had met on the other camp a prisoner from his home town. The two had gone somewhere to chat and reminisce, during which time the lorry party, unable to find him, had to return one man short. An understandable lapse maybe, but it cost Hans his existence of relative freedom as he was sent back to the "cages" at Fayid as punishment.
With summer came my demobilisation order. I went in to the Wing Commander's office to inform him of my imminent departure. His response was stunning "You can't bloody well go, Mister Station Warrant Officer ! I need you here". I withdrew. The next time I was before him I realised with great relief that he had become reconciled to the fact that my leaving was inevitable. It was not without a tinge of regret that I headed for Port Said though my overriding feeling was one of joy at the prospect of returning to my family. Along with hundreds of others I boarded an American liberty ship heading for Marseilles. Two days out its engines failed and we were stranded until towed into Malta some days later. Here we transferred to another liberty ship which managed to deposit us in the south of France. Then a wearisome train journey to Calais in very poor rolling stock before boarding a ferry to Dover. A week later I walked out of an RAF demobilisation centre in Staffordshire on my way home to Lancashire and civilian life.
Editor's note : in civilian life, Eric demonstrated once again perseverance in the tasks he set himself. As an official prison visitor (a Home Office appointment) for some years and also serving as Chairman of the visitors' group at the high security prison in Full Sutton, he devoted much of his time to this entirely voluntary work, up till the compulsory retirement age of 75. For these services, H.M. Queen Elizabeth II invested him with the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) at a ceremony in Buckingham Palace in 1995. In his usual modest fashion, Eric considers this as recognition of the work and excellence of the team of volunteers that he led : "Without their loyalty and support I could hardly have achieved much of the success attributed to me" ...
Sadly, on 1 August 2002, this kind and genuine gentleman passed away.
May this page be a lasting tribute to him - He will be remembered !