Posts Tagged 'Empire Air Training Scheme'

The Empire Air Training Scheme, or How I Got To Have Lunch With 40 Veterans At The Same Time

The Empire Air Training Scheme was an agreement between Britain and its Dominion countries that trained ab-initio aircrew and put them into a joint ‘pool’ from which they could be drawn to serve with various RAF units. Some 37,000 Australian aircrew were trained under the agreement, serving in Coastal, Fighter and Bomber Commands. And I recently had lunch with almost 40 of them.

My post written after the Bomber Command Commemorative Day Foundation (Vic)’s Cocktail Party in March started thusly:

“I love collecting veterans.”

It was a throw-away line, really. I was referring to my habit of coming away from Bomber Command-related events with a few new contacts, addresses and things to follow up on. But the line obviously tickled the fancy of Fay McPherson. While we were organising my visit to her husband Gerald a couple of months ago, she mentioned that she and Gerald are involved in running the biannual Empire Air Training Scheme luncheon.

The what?

Fay told me that a lunch is held in Caulfield, Melbourne, every six months for trainees and staff of the Empire Air Training Scheme. In other words, just about any member of Commonwealth aircrew from WWII can attend. Would I like to go along too, she enquired?

Would I what!

I had no idea that such a group existed. I’ve been pretty happy with groups of ten or so veterans from various lunches and events, and we might reach 40 on a good year for the Bomber Command Commemorative Day in Canberra, but the old blokes are usually well and truly outnumbered by family, friends and assorted hangers-on like, well, me. But I felt quite special to be invited to this one: fully two-thirds of those present had served in the Royal Australian Air Force in some capacity during WWII. Such a concentration of veterans I haven’t seen in a long, long time.

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

Al Beavis, a 608 Squadron Mosquito navigator

And so it was that, a few weeks ago, almost sixty people descended on the Caulfield RSL. As it turns out the RSL isn’t even in Caulfield. It’s housed in a handsome 90-ish-year-old mock Tudor building in neighbouring Elsternwick, and when I turned up last week people were already starting to gather in the bar, where the staff had set up jugs of beer with glasses for a very civilised serve-it-yourself opener. I recognised one or two people but decided I’d go introduce myself to someone new.

John Missen was his name, a genial man with a big white beard and a hearty laugh. John had been in Course 55 at 1 Initial Training School at Somers in Victoria in late 1944, right before the Empire Air Training Scheme began to wind up (I believe Course 57 was the final one). Just 18 years old, he and a mate reckoned they’d have a better chance of seeing action if they volunteered directly for training as air gunners but as you couldn’t be posted overseas until you were 19 someone talked them out of that. John ended up at Signals School at Point Cook and did eventually see service on the ground as a RAAF signaller in Borneo. The war ended before some others from his course, who had been accepted as gunners, got to an operational squadron. A writer and a painter, John told me he’s written a novel and is wondering if he should try to get it published. “It needs a good editor”, he said, “but the problem is that once you get to my age…”

The RSL had decided on this, of all days, to renovate its kitchen, so the meal was a somewhat slap-up affair cooked mostly on a BBQ. But it was hearty enough and the conversation was great. I’d asked to be seated next to “someone interesting”, and Fay more than delivered. At my table were two Halifax skippers (Laurie Larmer of 51 Sqn and Ralph White of 192 Sqn) and a Mosquito navigator (Ken Munro). One of the others at the table was Geoff Clark, who while not a veteran himself was pretty close: he’d completed his National Service in the RAF in the 1950s, working in the Photographic Section with reconnaissance cameras. And the other person was a man named Ian Stevenson, who’d brought along a logbook belonging to his uncle who had been a Spitfire pilot killed over Italy. So we all had plenty to talk about, and even more so when I discovered that Laurie lives just two suburbs over from me.

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

Ralph White, 192 Sqn Halifax pilot

I wandered around to some of the other tables between lunch and dessert. Someone mentioned the primitive conditions when the Initial Training School at Somers first opened. Apparently it was quite cold and the buildings were very draughty. At this point I heard Ken Wilkinson, a 77 Sqn Kittyhawk pilot, snort. “I was there in July…” he said. Ken thought at first that, as my interest is mainly Bomber Command, he wouldn’t be of much use to me, and pointed me to the two 460 Squadron men across the table. But then he said he had also done some air traffic control while in the Air Force… I’ll be seeing Mr Wilkinson again for a deeper chat, methinks!

Ken Wilkinson - a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot - calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

Ken Wilkinson – a 77 Sqn Wirraway pilot – calls a taxi to go home after the lunch.

I also talked with Jack Bell, who I had heard speak during the Bomber Command Panel Discussion at the Shrine of Remembrance in 2013.I mentioned how happy I was to see so many veterans in the one place, and he concurred. But he had a very interesting point too. “A lot of these blokes haven’t told their stories”, he said. “This isn’t the place for it though – too many distractions. You really need to get them on their own.”

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Jack Bell, 216 Squadron Vickers Valencia and Bristol Bombay Wireless Operator/Air Gunner

Which, I thought, is very true. I go to a lot of these sort of functions (indeed I’m madly trying to get this post finished in time before heading to Canberra for a whole weekend of them) and, while they are an excellent way to meet people initially, they are not usually the right sort of environment for a detailed talk. If the old blokes are up for something like that, as Jack said, you really do need to go and visit them.

So six old men will shortly get a letter from me requesting just such a visit. And hopefully I’ll get the chance to go and get some stories from them.

Words and photos (c) 2015 Adam Purcell

Happy First Solo Day!

On 28 November 1940 – exactly seventy-two years ago today – Phil Smith flew solo for the first time. Like many (if not all) Australian pilots under the Empire Air Training Scheme, it was in a little yellow Tiger Moth, serial A17-58, at No. 6 Elementary Flying Training School, Tamworth, NSW. Phil didn’t seem too excited about it when he wrote to his parents later that day (A01-132-001), reporting simply that “[…] altogether I made three solo flights and landed satisfactorily each time.”

But there is no doubt that the first solo is a significant milestone for any pilot. Witness the following small collection of thoughts and memories from various pilots, taken from the excellent Australians at War Film Archive:

Barry Finch, eventually of 3 Squadron, quoted his instructor:

“Well you might want to kill yourself but I’m precious and I’m getting out. That’s all I can say. Be careful. I’m going to let you go off on your own.” The bloody thing leapt into the air like a young buck, it was incredible what a difference it made without his weight in the front, and to actually find myself going up into the air without any head in front of me, it was unbelievable. And I thought, “Well, I’m here, all I’ve got to do is to get down again.”[After landing] I went over to where he was and he said, “That’s alright, I’m coming with you next time. I reckon you’re safe […] Unforgettable!” (C06-072-013)

John Boland, 61 Squadron:

“So when I had 5 hours instruction up, I got in the aircraft and did a circuit and the instructor got out of the front seat, took the pilot stick out and said, “Righto, take it around again” and I got the shock of my life. I got that big a shock, that when I come around to land, I was that nervous, the instructor had confidence that I could land it, and as I come in to touch down the tail hit the ground first and it bounced.” (C06-073-005)

Colin Morton, 450 Squadron:

“Scared bloody hell out of me. […] I flew an aeroplane before I drove a motor car. It’s – the impact was enormous and I loved it” (C06-081-003)

Alf Read, 463 Squadron:

“I can still remember it because it’s marked with a tree, which you see as you drive past the old airport at Narromine. My instructor said, “Just a minute and I’ll get out, and I’ll sit under this tree while you take your first solo,” and I can assure you it was a wonderful feeling just to be able to take that plane off and bring it back in one piece. And it’s a little incident in your life that you never forget.” (C06-086-006)

Noel Sanders, 463 Squadron:

“I went solo at about nine hours, I think it was. It should have been seven, but they took me up for a check, and by the time I finished the check and got back, the wind had strengthened up so strong that they wouldn’t let a learner pilot go out. So he said, “Well, you’ll have to do it tomorrow.” Tomorrow came and it was still blustery and rough and nobody flew that day. And the following day he said, “You’ve got to have another check.” So I had another check, then he said, “Right, off you go. Just do one circuit and down again and that’s your baptism on your own.” (C06-090-011)

Lionel Rackley, 630 Squadron

“Eventually I went solo, on the 1st of April, 1942. […] Every instructor said it, “Now, okay Rackley. Be careful, because we’re very short of aeroplanes. We don’t care if you get back or not, because we can always replace you. But we’re short of aeroplanes.” So you go around, and I came in and I stood too close to the field, and I had to go around again. And of course the second time I got in. You know then, okay, “I’ve done it. I’m going to get through this course now. I’m not going to get scrubbed. The worst of it is over.” […] And I remember sending a telegram to my mother. I’ve still got the telegram in my album there: ‘Went solo today’”. (C06-075-004)

As it turns out, today is also the tenth anniversary of my own first solo. It was in a Cessna 152, registered VH-WFI, from runway 16 at Wollongong, south of Sydney. After an hour or so of flying circuits, my instructor got out and I proceeded to fly one by myself. It was a slightly wobbly but passable exercise and I logged a princely 0.1 hours solo time in the process.

Some years later, by this time a fully qualified private pilot, I would also experience solo flight in a Tiger Moth, in my own small way experiencing something of what these young men had been doing seven decades ago. And while that flight remains one of the most memorable ones in my logbook, I still remember the tremendous sense of achievement that followed my first solo.

© 2012 Adam Purcell


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