Wartime RAF training – 1941-2

Dad used to relate how he had intended to join the Army after leaving school (presumably in the summer of 1940), but the RAF recruiting office was nearer to Central Station in Liverpool, so he decided to join up there and avoid the walk to the Army office. It was a story he told against himself, but probably true – later in life he was averse to walking anywhere! A further story was that, upon recruitment, he was told he would have to be inoculated by injections, and sought to de-volunteer on the spot. He was always very wary of injections, so this may well be true.

In December 1939, the Canadian government had agreed that its main contribution to the war would be the training of aircrew. After the fall of France in May 1940, this was put into effect, as there was no operational space in which to train pilots in Britain. The British Commonwealth Air Training Plan was enlarged after May and June 1942, but it began to be run down after November 1943. Presumably Dad would have been long back in England by then, flying reconnaissance.

Dad was thus sent to RAF Penhold, south of the city of Red Deer, in Alberta, Canada. This had been developed as a Department of Transport airfield, with runways completed only in 1939. It was selected in July 1940 for conversion to a Service Flying Training School site; construction work was completed over the following winter, in conditions of extreme cold, and the base was ready by August 1941.

The first group from No.36 Flying Training School was assembled at RAF West Kirby in August 1941. RAF West Kirby (actually near to Greasby, Wirral) was not far from Dad’s home town of Wallasey, on the road from Saughall Massie to West Kirby, and he would point out its site to me when we drove past from time to time. He told me that he was demobilised there. It is not clear whether his own trip began at West Kirby, but it is possible. The first group sailed from the Clyde to Halifax in Nova Scotia on board HMT Stratheden, a troopship used throughout the war.

Mum told me a story that this ship was damaged before it docked, but that everyone got off safely. On board, David Pearce, whose son provided many details for this entry, proved to be the only person taking Christmas dinner in 1941….!! Presumably 35 Course, which included David Pearce and Dad, sailed in late December 1941. A later account, from a Canadian returning home in 1945, took 9 days from Liverpool to Quebec City, and then over 2 days by transcontinental train to Winnipeg.

Dad always told a story of his going by train across Canada, with a day of prairie and a day of forest, somewhat monotonous, and this would tally with the journey to Penhold. Certainly the course began on 9 Jan 1942 and was completed on 24 April. I have counted 66 Leading Aircraftsmen on the course, and it is sobering to note that at least 22 did not survive the war. One that did was David Pearce (b.1921), who died only recently. 35 men were killed during training between 1941 and 1944.

It appears that most training of that time was in Airspeed Oxfords. There is a photograph of Dad in RAF uniform, dated April 1942. At the time he was only 19 years old, which explains his boyish appearance. What he thought of this part of his life, facing danger for the rest of the war, is unrecorded. On the back of the photograph, now worn and torn, is the message, addressed to his parents, “On the prairies. All my Love to you both.”

This well be the context for another story that Dad told. he and a group of officers were in a bar somewhere, and an American came in; shortly after he left, Dad or a colleague went to order another drink, and was told that the American had left enough money to buy a free drink for every airman in the place. Not surprisingly, Dad always had a soft spot for Americans after that.

The Penhold base itself was closed down in October 1944, but later rehabilitated and used for military and then civil purposes.

6 December 2014, amended 25 December 2016 and 28 February 2017


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