Circuits and Bumps

Midsummer, 1945. In Europe the war is over. In the Pacific, there are still three weeks to run in the battle for the island of Okinawa. The first atom bomb test has not yet been carried out and the Allies are estimating losses of more than a million American and British lives if the Japanese mainland has to be invaded. In Britain, the coalition government has been dissolved, the general election campaign is on and our junior officer has reported in glorious weather to Larkhill School of Artillery on Salisbury Plain, where the 24 members designate of the forthcoming Air OP course have assembled for a month of field gunnery exercises and examinations before going for flying training with the RAF.

On the first morning we are told that the War Office had overestimated the number required to qualify as pilots and that six of those present will therefore be returning to their units forthwith. On what basis they are selected, none of us knows, but later in the day six shattered officers are duly driven with their kit to Salisbury station. It is also now announced, pour encourager les autres, that at the end of the month a further six will be ‘weeded out’. Where the child’s boasted self-confidence had gone I have never been sure, but after another day on the ranges and good shooting by everyone except myself I did not see how I could hope to make the final dozen.

That I did make it surprised me then and surprises me still. I hardly deserved to. When others with less need than I to be anxious were remaining at the camp and devoting their weekends to study and revision, I was catching the first possible train up to London and Nicola with two or three brief excursions down to Sussex to see my family. When, judging by their conversations, others were thinking about little else besides how they had performed or would be able to perform on the ranges or in the map reading exercises that featured prominently in our curriculum, I was engrossed by pleasures past or – as I hoped and schemed – those yet to come, or, too often, brooding on things done or said, or not done and not said. When the Chief Instructor told us that we had been an ‘outstanding’ course and read out the names of the twelve who would go on to Cambridge my name was second on the alphabetically ordered list. I remember nothing else about what must have ranked as a never-to-be-forgotten moment except making a telephone call to London to arrange a meeting with Nicola next day.

On 26 July, the day that Winston Churchill, ‘saviour of the nation’, is overwhelmingly rejected in favour of Clement Attlee and the first Labour government in British history, I am issued with my flying kit at Marshall’s airfield, Cambridge, have my first flight in a Tiger Moth and am air sick. It is now that the first major blank appears in the chronicles of our first person singular, so that between the middle of August and the end of December my RAF flying log book, meticulously kept on pain of severe disciplinary action, is almost our only aide memoire. In explanation I am able only to theorise not that nothing in all that time deserved report, but, to the contrary, and as we saw once before, the pace of life and my state of mind so changed that I failed to make the effort to keep up with the action.

There now occurs that which, had it happened two or three months earlier, would have given the War Office second thoughts about the training of new pilots for Air OP. On 6 August  the first atom bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Three days later a second bomb obliterates Nagasaki. August 13 and 14 see London wildly celebrating the news that Japan has surrendered and that the world conflict has at last come to an end. Nobody goes wild on the Air OP course at Cambridge. We know that the threat of action over the jungles of Burma has been lifted from us and we quietly, and mostly privately, rejoice. As with VE-Day in Germany, however, the celebrations of the official end to the war in the Pacific seem anticlimactic. More important has been our performance in approaches and landings (takeoffs, if more hazardous, are superficially a lot easier) and how soon we shall be able to take our solo checks. On 17 August, after a far from creditable 11 hours and 30 minutes of dual instruction (the star pupil on the course has taken only 9 hours) I am cleared for my first solo flight (“OK. She’s all yours. Once round and a nice smooth landing”).

Now, life becomes a touch more demanding. Instead of exercise number 12, taking off into wind, and exercise number 13, approach and landing (accounting for nine out of ten of the entries in the log book), instrument flying, low flying, precautionary landing, stalling, gliding and climbing turns, spinning, sideslipping, steep turns, forced landing, action in the event of fire and restarting the engine in flight (exercise number 24) follow one another within the space of three days and a total of less than three flying hours. August 22 finds me suffering badly from air sickness as a result of having antagonised a new instructor who has taken revenge by putting me through excessive practice in recovering from the spin. On 2 September I am rehearsing forced landings by day and flying solo at night. On 3 September a certain Warrant Officer Butcher (for his patience, not to say gentleness, I retrospectively salute him) introduces me to aerobatics (stall turns, looping the loop, rolls off the top). In a day or two I am required to perform them by myself and, as with every exercise, sign my log book as having done so. September 7 is an especially exciting day, since it is now that Flight Sergeant Brown takes me up in an Auster 3 instead of a Tiger Moth. The Auster is the high wing, enclosed cabin monoplane (the Tiger is an open cockpit biplane) in which we shall be doing our operational training, if we progress that far.

Two weeks later is a day of humiliation. Somewhere north and east of Cambridge, flying solo in an Auster on exercise 27 – pilot navigation – I stray into cloud, fail to determine my position when at last I escape from it, fail to equate anything I can see on the ground with anywhere on my map, fear a deterioration in the weather and decide to land at the first opportunity. Eventually, I see the crossed runways of the sort of heavy bomber base with which East Anglia has been littered by the war. The sign in the signal square as I make a regulation pass over it at a few hundred feet is the one for LAND ONLY IN EMERGENCY. With my fuel gauge registering empty, I judge myself to meet the conditions and line myself up on the runway that is nearest to being into wind.

Nearest, but not near enough. Heavy bombers are not bothered by a boisterous cross wind; little single-engine aeroplanes are. Crabbing down towards the vast expanse of concrete, concentrating on my flying, I see red lights flashing at me from the control tower and a line of small objects moving towards me across the runway . With nothing in the tank, to abort my landing and go round again is out of the question: if my engine should cut in the middle of a steep turn I should most surely stall into the ground. Nothing for it, therefore, but to keep going and hope that the unidentified oncomers will get out of my way.

A few feet from the concrete I see that the approaching objects are men on racing bicycles. As they hurtle to either side of me, crouched over their drop handles, I notice that a white lamp is signalling frantically at me from the tower. COME HERE, it says in Morse code as I swerve onto the grass, where within yards of the tower the motor stops of its own accord. Massed on the balcony, staring down at me as I get out of the plane, are figures in blue, some with gold braid on their uniform caps. I have landed in the middle of, and threatened gravely to disrupt, the All England, RAF inter-station cycling championship.

It is a very strict rule that pupils who have been obliged to make an emergency landing away from base may not take off again except in the company of a qualified instructor. The RAF, forgiving and hospitable, allow me to use the telephone, and while the Auster is refuelled and I wait for the regulation and ignominious collection, treat me to a drink.

Of the twelve of us who left Larkhill for Cambridge in July, eight of us report to 43 Operational Training Unit at Middle Wallop in Hampshire in the middle of October. Here, greater demands are made on us than mere pilot competence. Here, we must fly, navigate, observe shell bursts on the ground (‘fall of shot’) and radio back to the guns such corrections to their aim as we think they ought to make in order for them to hit their declared targets. I am a less than star performer in all of these. As a general comment it would not be unfair (but, some would think, generous) to say that I simply do not keep my eye on the ball.

Example. We have been sent on a cross-country navigation exercise in which we are required to note the most prominent feature to be observed in a certain map square. It takes me longer than it ought to have done to find what I believe to be the given square, which includes part of the docks at Southampton where the ocean liner Queen Mary happens to be at a quayside. This is interesting, and I fly over and round the ship twice. The consequence is that I use a lot more petrol than I ought to have done and in making my regulation pass over the airfield at Middle Wallop on my return am rewarded by having the engine cut and the propellor seize. Exercises eleven and sixteen now stand me in good stead. By a combination of gliding turns and sideslipping I manage to get in over the boundary and come to a halt not fifty yards inside the airfield. Nobody is pleased.

It all ends in a cry. It is not my flying that does for me, but my gunnery. After a final test over the ranges on 15 November I learn that I have failed to reach the required standard of proficiency in directing fire from the air. “Lack of concentration” is one of the comments in my terminal report. “Too many weekends in London”, says the chief instructor. “Burning the candle at both ends never did anyone any good”. Sent on two weeks leave and ordered to report thereafter to the Royal Artillery Depot at Woolwich, I depart as a certified pilot-navigator of light aircraft but without the distinctive and coveted Air OP wings on the left breast of my uniform. The damage to my self-esteem will never wholly be repaired.

Diary entries for the end of 1945 and the first three months of 1946 constitute a capriciously maintained, and in places almost illegibly pencilled, chronicle of wasted time. At Woolwich, they knew no better than I did what to do with a junior officer of field artillery now that there was no war to fight and no outpost of empire which was not already under notice of closure, and could hardly have cared less. I had better take some more leave, said an elderly captain, who thus was able to shift me from one filing tray to another and forget about me for a while. I took a month, which was bad for my own constitutionally unsound finances, bad for my family, some of whom lent me money which they themselves could ill afford, and ruinous for my already-ramshackle and doomed relationship with Nicola. I had no well-established and intelligent interests, too much time on my hands and too many opportunities for the exercise of adolescent stupidities and frustrations.

London saw far more of me than Sussex did. More flowers were bought from Moyses Stevens. More evenings and too much money was spent at Grosvenor House and the Dorchester. I read Brideshead Revisited (published the year before), went to see Brief Encounter (another runaway success of 1945, and one which established Celia Johnson and Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto for ever in English middle class affections) and somewhere or other heard a rumour that there were vacancies in the Army Education Corps for officers prepared to “go back to school” in order to become language specialists. Reporting to Woolwich after Christmas, I asked if there might be a possibility of my joining the Corps. Not impossible, said the elderly captain, but he would need some time to look into the matter. Meanwhile, why didn’t I take a spot more leave?

Having taken ten days, I reported again to Woolwich and was told to take a week more, but this time as posting leave prior to a return to Germany and a holding camp at Lüneberg, there to wait for assignment to an as yet unspecified unit somewhere in the British Army of Occupation. The possibility was appalling. Remembering May 1943, and my situation following the gas course, I telephoned Hobart House to ask if a Major C was by any chance still in a section called ‘Funnies’. There was no longer a section of that name, I learnt, but Major C could be found on another number. When I went to see him next day he was in a smarter office than the one in which I had met him some eighteen months ago, but otherwise was just the same. He volunteered nothing about his present functions, but when we had exchanged pleasantries and I had given him the gist of my situation and said that what I would most like would be a posting to almost anywhere except Germany, though for preference as far away from London as possible, he said well, that would really narrow things down to India. How did that appeal ?

It took me ten more days to organise myself. I said no goodbyes in London, but at home picked primroses for my mother and shed tears when waiting with her at the bus stop at the end of posting leave.


NEXT FRIDAY, 22  February Serial 15:  Indian Occasions, Part One.

We had lunch in Cairo, supper before boarding the Liberator again at the airfield near the Pyramids and breakfast at Shaibah, almost on the shores of the Persian Gulf. Dawn was breaking as we flew over the delta of the Tigris and Euphrates. The sun was setting as we landed at Karachi, in India. After a hot, sticky and restless night in the city we exchanged the Liberator for a Dakota and after some 500 turbulent miles as the DC3 flies, and a furnace of a train, arrived in Deolali.


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