Category Archives: Bomber Command

Fred walks home on leave

One beautiful summer’s afternoon, Fred was returning on leave from his airbase at Elsham Wolds in north Lincolnshire. The orange arrow is RAF Elsham Wolds, and Fred departed from a station near Elsham before continuing to Lincoln, to Nottingham and finally to Derby:

Derby was, and is, a huge station by English standards:

Fred arrived on time at Derby station, but there were no more trains to take him on to Burton-on-Trent (bottom left on the map above). He decided therefore to walk the twelve miles back home to the little mining village of Woodville, something which he had often done in the opposite direction in pre-war years, when he had been to watch Derby County play football at the Baseball Ground.

It was a Sunday, and after a couple of miles or so, Fred crossed the River Trent over the five spans of Swarkestone Bridge:

Fred then continued across the meandering  stone causeway, built by the Saxons, which crosses the floodplain of the River Trent. Things are a little bit different nowadays:

Or at least, things are a little different from what Fred would have known. These two photographs are taken from the same spot, but are separated by at least a century :

After the meandering charms of the ancient crossing, Fred then set off to the right, up the hill, towards the next village of Ticknall. As the evening moved slowly ever closer to sunset, everything grew very calm and very still, the light hovered on the edge of dusk, and just as he reached the top of the first long steady rise, Fred could hear, ringing out through the silence, the bugle sounding the Last Post at the nearby German prisoner of war camp:

Fred stopped to listen as the familiar notes echoed in evocative fashion over the late evening landscape, as the bright light of the sinking sun illuminated a pastoral scene in an England which is now long gone and will never return. It was a uniquely beautiful and unrepeatable moment in his life:

During the rest of his lifetime, Fred was never aware of a couple of facts about this moment. Firstly, he always thought that the prison camp was at Castle Donington but in actual fact it was somewhat closer to where he was, at Weston-on-Trent. I know that because I have just looked at the list of all the POW camps in the country.

Secondly, as he walked through the village of Ticknall, under the bridge which used to carry the railway to the limestone quarry…

…as he walked past St George’s Church…

….he did not know that the building held, hidden away somewhere in a safe place, a great many records of his own family history. He did not know that his family had been baptised there, married there and buried there for centuries. They included…

his own grandfather, John Knifton (1850-1934), John’s father, Thomas Moor Knifton, and his mother, Jemima Knifton, and her mother, Katharine Knifton, and then her father, Richard Kniveton and lastly, George Kniveton, born, in all probability, before 1700.

Another England which is now long gone and will never return:

Fred would have walked past all the old water pumps at the side of the road, every fifty yards through the whole village. I bet some of them were still working then. If Fred had done his long walk previously, he might even have known which pumps could slake his thirst after perhaps seven or eight miles of walking:

Fred could not possibly have known, though, that only fifteen years later, in his Connaught green Austin A40 Devon saloon, he would drive, not walk, through the village, and his young son would count the pumps out loud as they passed along. Fred didn’t know that that was going to happen in the near future. He was too busy in the present, fighting to make sure that England had a future:

 

 

 

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Fred’s travels with the RAF

During the war years, Nottingham was a city which welcomed huge numbers of RAF men from all of the many airbases in Lincolnshire. One of the most famous pubs was the Black Boy, designed by Nottingham’s greatest architect, Watson Fothergill. The famous hotel is the very large building in the middle of the buildings on the left :

Alas, this wonderful, wonderful building was demolished to make way for a supermarket and a very ugly supermarket at that. The Black Boy was a hotel which was very convenient for the dashing Brylcreem Boys, who could easily get to Nottingham from their scores of bomber bases across Lincolnshire. Once they were there, they could get up to whatever they wanted and the Black Boy had enough bedrooms to accommodate all of them. I saw a programme recently which said that the rates of venereal disease among RAF aircrew were so high around this time that serious measures had to be taken. It was decided therefore that any man diagnosed with VD would have his mission total taken back to zero. Once you had done 30 missions, you were taken off combat flying, so if you had done a decent number, around 20, for example, this would have been a huge disaster, and a life threatening one at that.

Fred used Nottingham as a place to get a connection for Derby. When he was at Elsham Wolds, I think he must have caught a train at nearby Barnetby and then either got a connection at Lincoln or gone straight through to Nottingham. From there he could easily reach Derby or even Burton-on-Trent.  The orange arrow points at Elsham Wolds and nearby Barnetby:

Fred was no fool and he soon discovered that there was a small railway station, almost in the centre of Nottingham, called, he thought, High Pavement. It was an open station which meant that there were never any inspectors there to check tickets as the passengers alighted from the train.

The smart thing to do therefore, if you were either coming to Nottingham to visit, or were just changing trains at Nottingham, was not to bother with buying a ticket, but just to get off, not at the main station, but at High Pavement. You could then either disappear into the city, or walk the short distance to the main station and then catch the train to Derby or to Burton-on-Trent.

In later life, Fred was to retain little memory of the details of High Pavement station except that there were lots of blue brick walls and you had to go down some steps on your way to the main bit of the station.

I don’t really know where he means, but this remaining railway-type blue brick wall may be something to do with a station in this area:

Fred often had a 24 hour pass, which would run from 00h00 to 23h59. He frequently used to travel, therefore, in the early hours of the night. At that time there were certainly very few welcoming faces on the platforms, except the members of the Salvation Army, who were always on hand to dispense cups of tea or plates of hot food, most welcome out in the damp fogs of autumn, or in the cold icy blasts of winter. In later life, Fred was always to say that the Salvation Army were the only religious organisation to show any practical interest whatsoever in the welfare of the forces. He would always try to give them a donation whenever he saw them, because they had done so much to help soldiers, sailors and airmen when they really needed it in the cold dark days of World War Two.

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Fred goes to Lincoln Cathedral

Towards the early part of his career in the Royal Air Force, probably in the winter of 1941-1942, Fred was stationed for a short period at Cranwell, the RAF College. Cranwell is a very imposing place:

This episode took place at the very start of his stay there, when, in his first period of free time, Fred decided to go out on a visit somewhere.

It was a glorious, cold, clear, bright blue, frosty day, and Fred went out of the front gate of the camp accompanied by a friend. It’s difficult to miss the gates at Cranwell:

Seeing a local man pushing his bike along the road, Fred asked him the way to Lincoln, but instead of offering directions, the man just stretched out his arm and pointed along the road, which was a Roman one, and absolutely straight, to the distinctive shape of the cathedral, silhouetted sharply against the bright light of the sky. Lincoln Cathedral is on a high hill, surrounded by a flat landscape, so it is fairly difficult to miss:

The man said not a single word but just carried on trudging along with his bicycle. Fred and his friend, armed with the usual 24 hour pass, set off cycling along the road to Lincoln.

This initially unnamed friend may well have been Joe Fielding, a highly educated man who had studied, among other things, Latin at Oxford University.  The two young airmen were taken around the cathedral by one of the amateur guides, who had many interesting things to explain to them. When they reached the shrine to St Hugh, at the eastern end of the cathedral, near the altar, the guide told them all about the life of the saint, and his pet swan, but he confessed that, as a modestly educated working class man, he was unable to translate the Latin inscription on one of the metal tablets near the altar. Joe, however, with his degree level knowledge of Latin, proceeded to translate the inscription fluently.

The guide though seemed to be really, really, upset. Fred felt that, while Joe’s behaviour was perhaps the product of innocent helpfulness, he should rather just have kept his mouth shut, and let the guide remain the expert. Fred was certainly highly embarrassed by the whole affair.

As one of the coincidences that fill all our lives, Fred was to pass away on the very same day that I myself took a party of schoolboys to visit Lincoln Cathedral. I was able with ease to find that single plaque written in Latin, unchanged in the sixty or so years between the two events.

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Fred goes to Rotherham

In his early career with the RAF, Fred lived in Rotherham, where he was training to be a wireless operator. He attended the local Technical College, and for his ab initio training in electronics, he studied topics such as radar and the many other technical devices which he would need to use as a Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.

The college is still there today:

Fred was staying at 94, Frederick Street, with Mr and Mrs Childs, as a lodger in their house. The latter acted more or less as surrogate parents, and in actual fact, frequently corresponded with Fred’s own parents, Will and Fanny. They reported Fred’s progress to them, and postcards were sent back and forth quite regularly. This is the reverse of the postcard of the School of Technology above:

The postcard was posted on June 22nd 1942 at 9.00pm. As far as I can see, the text reads

“ Dear Mr Mrs thanking you for your kind and welcome letter I had a letter from fred I am sending you this I though (sic) you would like it it is were fred and the boy went to school I saw it and though you will like it kind regards to fred when you write hoping you are both well we remain yours faithful  E W Childs”

This date proves that Fred had finished what must have been fairly elementary technical training relatively early in his RAF career. More of these postcards have survived and this one is of Boston Park in Rotherham:

The reverse has the same address as the card above and the message reads:

The text reads:

“74, FREDERICK. ST. Dear Mr & Mrs Knifton  First of all I hope that Mr Knifton has recovered from his illness & is getting about again. This is one of our local areas & is only about 8 minutes walk from here. Trust you are keeping well & also Fred. Haven’t heard anymore from him since he was home. Fondest of greetings always sincerely from E (&) W Childs”

Imaginative as most young men are, Fred chose the very same picture postcard to send home. His message was hardly informative:

The text reads

“Have not visited this park yet so I don’t know much about it Fred ”

It was probably when he was still being trained at Rotherham Technical College, that Fred, as a serving member of the armed forces, was invited on a distant, almost forgotten, occasion to be one of the people to meet the Mayor of Barnsley. The latter was the Lieutenant Colonel of the local regiment, and came round, as we would say nowadays, to “raise his profile”. One thing that Fred did remember was how overawed he felt given the high rank of the distinguished visitor, compared to his own status as a simple Aircraftman Second Class.

In similar vein, Fred had also been somewhat embarrassed when, in uniform, he was given a lift back home from Burton-on-Trent station, by Dr Love, the local doctor in Woodville, the village where Fred lived. Dr Love was himself a high ranking officer in the Royal Army Medical Corps during the First World War, and he had carried this rank with him, over into the local South Derbyshire Home Guard forces. Everybody in the High Street in Woodville was amazed when Dr Love stopped his car, at the time one of the only privately owned vehicles in the area, and out stepped Fred.

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The Battle of Britain (3)

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There is no better person to tell the story of the Battle of Britain that the greatest ever Englishman, Sir Winston Churchill:

“The Battle of France is over … the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilisation. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be freed and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new dark age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science” :

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“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves, that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, “This was their finest hour.”

He produced a second speech which gave us another memorable phrase:

“The gratitude of every home in our Island, in our Empire, and indeed throughout the world, except in the abodes of the guilty, goes out to the British airmen who, undaunted by odds, unwearied in their constant challenge and mortal danger, are turning the tide of the World War by their prowess and by their devotion. Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”

“All hearts go out to the fighter pilots, whose brilliant actions we see with our own eyes day after day, but we must never forget that all the time, night after night, month after month, our bomber squadrons travel far into Germany, find their targets in the darkness by the highest navigational skill, aim their attacks, often under the heaviest fire, often with serious loss, with deliberate, careful discrimination, and inflict shattering blows upon the whole of the technical and war-making structure of the Nazi power.”

We actually know exactly how that phrase “Never in the field….” came about.

On August 20th 1940 Churchill was travelling in a car with Major General Hastings Ismay to give a speech about the Battle of Britain in the House of Commons. Churchill was reading the speech out aloud to Ismay and it was originally “Never in the history of mankind have so many owed so much to so few”. Ismay interrupted him and said “What about Jesus and his disciples?” Churchill concurred and immediately changed it to its present form “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”.

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Fred joins the RAF (4)

We left Fred last time in Blackpool doing his basic training with Sergeant Parry. All of the RAF’s young volunteers were billeted in boarding houses which, in peacetime, would have accommodated holiday makers. Here are Fred and his friends:

And here is the section with Fred in it. It always reminds me of the RAF version of “Where’s Wally?”:

The boarding house landladies in Blackpool were paid for every recruit they took, but a substantial minority saw this as a fine opportunity to profiteer, accepting money for meals that were never to materialise in the quantities that the payments might have implied. Instead, these unscrupulous women either ate the food themselves, or, more frequently, sold it to their neighbours, who were themselves short of food because of rationing.

In the boarding house where Fred was billeted, thanks to their particular greedy grasping landlady, the individual portions served, were, at best, markedly small. One day, after Physical Training on the beach, Fred and his friend Jacques, came back early from their exercise.

Jacques was Fred’s best pal at this time. He was the son of a Yorkshire farmer, with the physical build, and indeed the appetite for food, to match his origins. Here is the group as a whole in a formal class photograph:

And here are Fred and Jacques as a close-up :

If you remember,  Fred and Jacques had come back early from their Physical Training on the beach. Fred went straight upstairs to wash and make sure he was properly dressed for the meal. Jacques, however, went immediately into the dining room where he found a whole ham, meant for twelve hungry young recruits, waiting in the centre of the table. Jacques, clearly accustomed to Yorkshire farmer sized servings, immediately presumed that the meat was for him and without further ado, he ate the lot.

The reaction of his colleagues when they eventually arrived from their afternoon’s exertions, has not been recorded for posterity, but at best, they were not very impressed.

One of the other men in Fred’s boarding house had  a knowledge both of chemistry and of the behaviour of dogs. One fine, sunny day he went down to the local chemist’s shop, and bought a very large quantity of aniseed concentrate which he then proceeded to dilute:

He took this magic potion and laid scent trails through the streets of Blackpool, all of which led back to the boarding house. He then continued the trails inside the building, entering through both the front and the back doors, leading up the stairs to the different floors, then onto the landings, into the bedrooms and into the bathrooms. In short, his aniseed trails reached every single square inch of the property. Aniseed is desperately attractive to dogs. Once they get the scent…

…off they go, like addicts to their next fix:

They just cannot resist that aniseedy smell:

The result was one glorious afternoon of revenge, as every dog in Blackpool, driven crazy by the overpowering and intoxicating scent of aniseed, arrived at the house and ran berserk, up and down the stairs, careering backwards and forwards along the landings, chasing in and out of the rooms, widdling, piddling and scent marking up every wall and in every recess and corner as they went.

Never make an enemy of the RAF.

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Fred joins the RAF (3)

For ab initio training, new recruits to the RAF were often sent to Blackpool. The popular seaside resort had an abundance of boarding houses and small hotels to provide accommodation and food. There were plenty of nice, wide promenades to practice marching:

There were lots of even wider beaches for improving physical fitness:

In Blackpool, Fred was taught how to salute, to hold a rifle, to march, and, in general, how to behave as an Aircraftman Second Class, by Sergeant Parry. It was Sergeant Parry’s proud boast that

“One day you’ll be walking along the street, years after this war has finished, and you’ll suddenly hear me shout “Ah..ten…SHUN ! ! ” and you’ll pull up straightaway, and come to attention, even if you are 55 years old.”

In actual fact, this never happened to Fred, but when he was 75 years old, he was admitted to Burton-on-Trent Hospital, where, although he was eventually to recover, he was for some length of time, gravely ill. The Victorian ward he was in had very large metal framed windows, pale green and beige walls, and a yellowish grey light. It clearly reminded a very confused Fred of his original RAF barracks, and the nurses reported that on more than one occasion he was heard to call out, in his delirium,

“It’s all right, Sergeant Parry, I’m coming, don’t worry, Sergeant Parry, I’ll be there in a minute.”

Presumably, Sergeant Parry was marginally more pleasant than the only other drill instructor that Fred ever mentioned. Ironically, Fred never actually met the man in question face to face.

Instead, shortly after arriving at a training base where he was to serve, Fred heard the story of a sergeant instructor who regularly shouted and screamed at the young men in his charge and who, in his treatment of them, regularly overstepped the mark by a considerable distance. He was a bullying, aggressive man, and basically, everybody soon grew to hate him.

One day, a German raider arrived and began strafing the airfield:

The instructor raced away across the grass and jumped into one of the many slit trenches which crisscrossed the base, constructed for surviving just such an occasion as this. What he did not realise when he jumped in was that the trench was almost completely filled with water.

Unable to swim, he drowned. There were men there who could have helped him but they chose just to watch him thrash about in the water. They could have saved his life, but he had abused too many of them for anybody to want to help him now.

Here are seven of Fred’s instructors during his “ab initio” training, probably at Blackpool:

They are Messrs Newman, Pascoe, Turner, Flight Sergeant Prentice, Hirst, Clark and Hanson.

 

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