Fred joins the RAF (1)

When war broke out in September 1939, Fred took advice from his father, Will, about which of the three services to join. Will, of course, had been a veteran of the First World War, and was well aware that, until conscription was introduced, there was a free choice of where to spend the conflict, with, hopefully, a maximised chance of survival.

Will told Fred not to join the Army, as he himself had fought on the Western Front, and had seen the horrors of Passchendaele, followed by a period on active service in the area of the Somme battlefields:

Will knew all too well that for the army commanders, the men remained just cannon fodder, whose eventual fate was of little importance to them, as they ate and drank in palatial comfort, miles behind the Front Line. The ordinary soldiers were just a list of names on a war memorial :

Will could not recommend the Navy either, because, if your ship were sunk, it would take you far too long to die, floating around in the water, with little real prospect of rescue. Don’t miss the shark :

Instead, along with thousands of other First World War veterans, he recommended to his son that Fred join the RAF. Will had seen the aircraft of the then Royal Flying Corps, flying high over the trenches. He knew that when they died, it was usually by burning, a relatively quick, and clean, way to go:

The supreme irony, of course, was that Fred was eventually to find himself in the ranks of Bomber Command. Throughout the entire war, their casualty rates were destined always to bear direct comparison with those of the British Army on the Western Front during the First World War, and even with the appalling rates of carnage of specific battles such as Ypres or the Somme.

Fred knew that his mother was extremely worried about her only son when he was away in the RAF. Like many thousands of his colleagues in Bomber Command, therefore, he told her that he had a totally safe job, working from nine till five in the quartermaster’s stores, doling out uniforms to new recruits. Fred’s father, however, who had experience of the sharp end of war, was fully aware that Fred was in aircrew, and of the risks that that involved:

Fred had very dismissive and, at the same time, modest, memories of what rank he had held in the RAF. He always insisted that he had been an AC2, an “Aircraftman Second Class”, but that he had once been promoted to the lofty heights of Lance Corporal, so that he would have the authority to guard a pile of boxes.

Fred’s parents had a photograph of their beloved only son, taken by Wilkes of Elgin:

They kept the photograph on the piano throughout the conflict, and indeed, long afterwards, as, perhaps, some kind of thanksgiving for his safe return. Fred’s mother and father had tried so hard to have a baby, with things going wrong with a number of pregnancies before Fred was born. And he was an only child.

Almost seventy years later, Fred’s granddaughter was to make a public appeal for information about her grandfather’s time in the RAF, and for just a few hours, this particular photograph was to be the main attraction on the RAF’s Facebook page:



Filed under Aviation, Bomber Command, History, Personal

31 responses to “Fred joins the RAF (1)

  1. John,

    I’m not sure if you remember me from School – I was a pupil from 77-84, and I was no great linguist! I went into the RAF after leaving school, so I have some knowledge of how to track down information about people who have served. Did you manage to get any information about your Dad? I am not in a position to be able to access the information, (I left 3 years ago), but I could track down some contacts if it would help.

    All the best – I’m enjoying reading the blog (and I never read any blogs!),

    Richard/Dick Edwards


    • Thank you for your reply and your kind offer. I paid my 35 quid a few years ago for information about my Dad and when it came in the post there was hardly anything there! I so wish he had talked about his time in the RAF but he didn’t want to, I suppose. I think he was suffering from PTSD to some extent. I know that he saw some horrendous sights and I feel that I perhaps understood him better as I myself got older.
      I am currently writing about the NHS students who died in the Second World War and the majority of them were in the RAF. I spend a minimum of three hours a day working on it, which is why my blog tends largely to steer clear of the war at the moment. Writing every day about 120 violent deaths at an early age, along with those of many of their young colleagues, can affect what you want to write about in your blog!
      I’m glad you enjoy my blog. I try quite hard to make it interesting and I certainly have a very wide variety of readers. Once again, many thanks for your contribution!

  2. Another great piece of family history, John

  3. Looking forward to more, John!

    • Thank you. Fred will take the next step in his quest to defeat the Third Reich single handed on October 12th. Mind you, joking apart, he always did say that things began to look up for the Allies just after he joined up, with victories at El Alamein and Stalingrad. Fathers do occasionally exaggerate their influence on history, though!

  4. Chris Waller

    I often wonder how people like your dad sustained themselves mentally against the stress, not only its magnitude but that they faced it every time they went on a mission, and every mission for a whole tour, knowing they had to endure five hours or so when at any moment they could face death. I think there exists an unbridgeable gulf in experience between those who have been through war and those who have not. Our generation has been uniquely blessed, by living through almost 75 years of peace in Europe, thanks in the main to the sacrifice and endurance of our parents’ generation.

    • My Dad had a very strong belief that death and disaster were something that always happened to other people. He said that if he hadn’t thought that, he would never have got in the plane. In the years immediately after the war, he also probably drank more than he ought to have done, although by the 1950s he was just a man who liked a couple of beers rather than a raging alcoholic.
      You are right to say that we are so lucky not to have been involved in a war. I’d like to say that it was all down to the good old nuclear deterrent but the more I think about that, the less convinced I am!

  5. Pierre Lagacé

    That is usually the kind of request I get which leads me to start a new blog.
    617 Squadron? Never heard of it, but I am curious…

    Great post John. You have a way with words.

    • Thank you very much for your encouraging words. I try very hard to write in a way which will appeal to one and all rather than just specialists.
      My Dad was in 103 Squadron at Elsham Wolds and then in 617 Squadron towards the end of the war. He flew 19 missions and told me that it would have been more if he had not been a wireless operator, a job which meant he was forever going off on courses to learn about new pieces of technology. Ironically, his favourite piece of electronic wizardry was Window, which is not quite the most complex piece of equipment!

  6. Joseph M

    Somewhat similar situation for me also, I remember a teacher ( while I was in the 9th grade ) telling everyone in his class he was pointing to all the guys and said you better hope the Vietnam War is going to be over by the time you graduate High School.

    I did not think to much about that statement at the time, as graduation was some 3 years away, and surely the Conflict/War would be over. I carried that black cloud over my head for those years until graduation.

    Soon after graduation I got my draft notice, I did not have a father figure directing me which branch to join ( He passed when I was 3 ) I knew the highest casualty was the Marines and Army. Not to have my mother worry as much I joined the USAF, after basic training, they told me ( in those days you really did not have much of a chance of getting the career field of your choice like nowadays )

    I was told I was going to be a Weapons Mechanic/Bomb Loader. I was trained in all types of munitions. Surely I thought with that type of career field I would be sent to Vietnam after graduation.

    Upon graduating from Technical School, our instructor told our class that this is the first graduation class that no one would be sent to Vietnam…at least not right away.

    My thought was OK…where are they going to send me? My orders stated I was to be sent to the European Theater, at a RAF base in England. RAF Alconbury near Huntington to be exact. I enjoyed my stay in England and was at that base when the Vietnam war was over.

    • Thank you so much for such a detailed reply. I had a young American friend who was equally wary of being sent to Vietnam. That was back in 1970 and his number was about half way down the list, so I think he probably missed the conflict.

    • Thanks very much, Andrew. As I mentioned in one of my replies above I have tended recently to steer clear of too many death and disaster posts which are very similar to my current researches about the High School’s WW2 casualties and leave me rather despondent about Europe’s recent history. Just wait until I return to Bigfoot in the Spring!

  7. As I was reading your post i was thinking of all those parents in that position. Such a difficult time and they have to be brave, living day by day. Thank you so much for sharing.

  8. Chose your service by the least vile death – not a great choice really for anyone to take. I wonder how many lied to their mothers / family to save them the daily fears of losing them.

    • From what I’ve read, making that choice was not an uncommon act. Certainly there were lots and lots of young men who were told by their fathers not to join the army and be cannon fodder for the generals in the chateau. In so many cases, of course, Dad could quote a dead family member to prove his point.
      The 1930s were also a time when aviation was popularised across the globe by people such as Amy Johnson, Alan Cobham and all the other pioneer aviators. In the book I’m writing about the High School’s casualties, I’ve called the process “The Call of the Skies” and for so many young men working in offices or department stores, it was irresistible.
      Lots of young men also lied to their parents about the job they were doing in the RAF. If what they said was actually true, there must have been about 60% of RAF personnel handing out new uniforms or preparing meals!

      • That’s an astounding figure and probably very true! I think the horrors of the First World War were very much in the minds of fathers and sons at the beginning of the second. That alone would have put many off, but combined with the romance of flying, the RAF must have been quite a magnet!

  9. Thank you to Will and Fred for what they endured.

    • Funnily enough, it never seemed to affect Will. I don’t remember him ever being upset or losing his temper. My Dad found his war much more difficult to throw off. He hated spending “the best years of my life” in a tin hut in freezing Scotland or in the countryside in north Lincolnshire. He also had some ghastly episodes to deal with. He was not helped by the fact that he was from a stiff upper lip generation who saw talking things through as a sign of weakness.

  10. And thank you for an excellent post

  11. Whenever I read details of what the British endured I try to imagine what it would have been for the rest of us. Although the Commonwealth , and later on the US, contributed our families were safe from day after day of bombing. And then, while Britain tried so desperately to recover from the War the emphasis seemed to be on helping Germany recover.

    • Sadly the Americans were too keen on making Allies of the Nazis so that they could fight together against the real enemy, the dirty, red, commie, bustards. Hence episodes such as Operation Paperclip and forgiving all the crazy concentration camp doctors in exchange for their test results,
      In actual fact, we had to pay back our debts to the USA in full. The process lasted until the time of Tony Blair, PM around 2000.
      Darwin, of course, was bombed, and I have seen at least one TV programme where Aborigine fishermen reported meeting on the beach what could only have been Japanese sailors. The local Australian garrison found only footprints.

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