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Author Topic: 12(b)  (Read 36 times)
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« on: August 20, 2023, 12:05:50 pm »


POINTAVON was a multi-purpose station. It had originally been one of the more important pre-war R.A.F. flying camps. Now it was used for training, for conversion of fighter into bomber pilots and for the last stages of operational training. It had a large officer’s mess, and quarters. For the first time I had a batman and room of my own, for Torquay had been only an improvised amateur set-up, and I had lived there in dreary digs. Still, there was a shock coming when, after settling myself in, I reported to the adjutant. ‘What are you doing here?’ was his greeting.

‘Reporting from Torquay.’


‘I was posted here.’

‘I’ve heard nothing about it.’

‘Well, that’s not my fault.’

He rummaged among his papers and then looked me up and down:
‘We don’t want you here.’
I was too astounded to reply to this. And then ungraciously he added: ‘Well, I suppose, as you are here, you’d better see the Station Commander.’

The Group Captain looked more like an Archdeacon than an officer. But he was at least polite and apologetic.

‘We don’t seem to know anything about you. Perhaps there’s been some mistake. Make yourself comfortable and we’ll put through an enquiry.’ For two days, I did nothing but wander about and get myself taken up in the air by a friendly instructor from the Fleet Air Arm. Then I was ‘found’.

I was sent for to the Wing Commander i/c Flying Training. He was an agreeable, tough little character, who had been waiting for me for two days. He, at least, was pleased to see me: ‘Here’s our problem,’ he explained; ‘we’ve got two hundred Canadians here. The first batch of Sgt. Pilots from over there. They’re a rum lot. Weather’s disorganised us. Flying has been very sporadic. They’ve reached the last stage of training. We’re supposed to give them the final touches. Operational Training. But they won’t fly. So I sent for one of you disciplinary chaps to see what you could do. On the last five flying parades, four men of the fifty have turned up. Now you go over and see to them. Tomorrow morning I want fifty men on parade. But remember this. They aren’t ours. They’re Canadian. I don’t want any charges made. Do it

I suppose my face rather fell, for it seemed to me a pretty impossible job. If they wouldn’t come on parade for this tough Wing Commander with his D.F.C., D.S.O. and bar, why should they come on parade for me? ‘Anyhow, see what you can do,’ he said wearily. Then, with a grin, ‘I’ll settle for twenty.’

I made my way to a corner of the camp where, in a shanty town of wooden shacks, my two hundred Canadian sergeants were supposed to be living. There was an Orderly office at the end: it was empty and very cold. I walked down a corridor with little cubicle rooms on each side. Many of the doors were open, and the rooms were a disorderly squalid mess. There seemed to be no one about. I tried one closed door and was emphatically told to ‘fuck off!’ At the far end in another room was a poker game in progress. Five battered sleazy figures looked up disinterestedly at my arrival, and then turned back to resume their game. They were huddled in blankets, and in assorted stages of undress. The room was very cold. I retired to think things out. Plainly here there was complete demoralisation. The quarters were filthy, as well as cold. What to do? I waited in the Orderly room until an N.C.O. turned up. He was a pleasant, puzzled, ineffective person, and he had given up. It was his job to call the parade of the fifty men on flying duty, morning and afternoon, and march them to the airfield. They had arrived, he told me, in a demoralised state. He had been unable to do anything with them from the start. He had no authority. They had dropped out of parade whenever they felt like it: then had come the bad weather. Flying had been postponed time and again. Things had gone from bad to as bad as possible. They were virtually

‘Where,’ I asked, ‘are they all?’

‘In London mostly,’ he said, ‘or in the neighbouring town.’

What did he suggest? He had nothing to suggest. There was nothing to be done with them now. They were simply out of hand. But he could tell me who were the leaders among them, and he went off to find one of them, a Sergeant Crane, who he thought was in camp. Sergeant Crane I recognised as one of the poker players. He lounged in, with a fine show of disrespect, his tunic undone, looking as if he had neither washed nor shaved for some days. He regarded me with a tolerant irony.

I took to Sergeant Crane at once. He was drily amused by me and my Cambridge accent. I asked him why the Sergeants didn’t want to fly and he countered by assuring me that they did.

‘But you don’t turn up on parade?’

‘Not many of us, no.’

‘Four yesterday,’ I said.

‘As many as that?’ He seemed genuinely surprised.

Well, we got talking, and I gradually got the picture. In the first place, half of them were not Canadians but Americans, who’d slipped over the border and volunteered. He was one. Their volunteer status was very important to them. They were refusing to fly because they weren’t being treated right. Had I noticed the cold? I had. I was shivering, though partly, no doubt, from nerves. Their quarters were disgraceful. There was no Sergeants mess, nowhere where they could get a drink. There was no coal for heating: there was no way of getting in to the town in the evenings. On the camp they were treated as pariahs. No one would talk to them. On the boat coming over the English officer-in-charge had called them ‘Bloody Colonials’.

It was this last which seemed to rankle with them more than anything else. At the same time, Sergeant Crane seemed an eminently reasonable man, and the complaints he made were certainly justified. Later he was to give me a graphic, and possibly true, picture of the American contingent. Most of them had got across the border because they were wanted by the police. He himself had been gun-running into South America: one was a card-sharper, one a pick-pocket: that good-looking one over there had specialised in picking up queers in night clubs and relieving them of their watches and cigarette cases.

In the end we came to an agreement. If I would get their grievances remedied, they would return to flying. I undertook to get them three things; coal for their quarters, transport into town in the evenings, and a Sergeants mess. And before the day was out I had at least secured the first. The supply had only failed because the inefficient N.C.O. hadn’t chased up the orderlies, who, following the example of the Sergeant pilots, had sloped off. They were discovered and set to work. Fires were lighted, and the place cleaned up. Their quarters were still a disgrace to any unit. They needed painting and repairing throughout; but at least they were a little better when cleaned and warmed.

I didn’t report back yet to my Wing Commander, for I presumed that the Sergeants would want some further quid pro quo before they responded; and I went to the nine o’clock parade next morning, not expecting anything, but just to make sure that the orderlies were still on the job. But, to my surprise, some forty odd characters shambled out into a ragged line, and Sgt. Crane cheerily asked: ‘What about this?’

I was delighted. By I.T.W. standards they were as broken down a set of scarecrows as one could fear to see. But there they were---forty-one bodies. I did a spiel about our mutual dependence. I would get it in the neck if they didn’t do their stuff. But I would do all I could to remedy their complaints. I didn’t risk an inspection, but mildly pointed out that buttons were supposed to be done up. They were also, I felt I could add, supposed to be cleaned and boots to be polished, but it was too late this morning for that. With what seemed a genuine surprise, they did up their buttons, but only gave wry smiles at the idea of cleaning them. Still, I was proud to be able, my first morning, to send off so many; and having thanked them for responding, watched them shamble off in a miserable imitation of marching.

The Wing Commander was more appreciative of my efforts than other members of the staff of the camp who, now knowing who I was, and what I was here for, never stopped remarking on the squalor of ‘your bloody Colonials’. ‘Why can’t you get your blasted Canadians looking a bit less sloppy?’ I was constantly to be asked in the next few weeks. But I had an answer to that. Because I couldn’t get their legitimate grievances met. The Transport Officer was perfectly agreeable to providing them a bus four days a week, and, with this and the heating of the huts behind me, I managed to keep a supply of forty bodies going up to the flying field twice every day. I never got a full complement, and I never got quite clear where the missing men were. They just disappeared. They slept out in the neighbouring County town: or they would endearingly ring up from London to report that all their money had been stolen by a whore. Could I post them some?

But they still looked like scarecrows and resisted with slow lazy smiles my good-natured banter about their appearance. And if I put on the pressure, one of them was sure to backanswer: ‘What about our Sergeants mess?’

Sergeants, under regulations, were entitled to a mess of their own, where they could get beer and foregather. There was one largish ramshackle hut which would have served the purpose. But when I tackled the Equipment Officer, I met a blank refusal. Our first conversation went something like this:
‘Look, Sir, we’ve got two hundred Canadian sergeants here and they’re entitled to a mess.’

‘They’re not, you know.’

‘But, surely, regulations say . . .’

‘Yes, regulations do, but where you’re wrong, is that officially we haven’t got two hundred sergeant pilots here.’

‘How do you make that out?’

‘This station has an establishment “for officers only”. So there can’t be two hundred sergeant pilots here.’

‘But there are.’

‘Not officially, there aren’t.’

‘But factually, there are, and they ought to have a mess.’

‘Since they don’t officially exist, how can they officially have a mess?’

‘Well, can they have an unofficial mess?’

‘Oh no! If I provide materials for a mess, I have to indent for them officially. And if officially they don’t exist, how can I?’

This Kafka-esque conversation was repeated between us day after day, with all sorts of ingenious syllogistic turns and convolutions.

Nor could I get any change elsewhere. I tried to enlist the support of the next ranking officer, the Administrative officer, but he was quite unsympathetic. ‘If you think I’m going to do anything for those sloppy Canadians of yours, you’re bloody mistaken. Why don’t you get them cleaned up? They’re a disgrace to the camp.’

I tried to explain my difficulties: ‘I’ll see to their appearance if you’ll see to their mess.’

But he wouldn’t listen: ‘If they won’t clean themselves up, put them all on a charge. That’ll teach them.’

I didn’t believe that this would do any good, but in any case the Wing Commander Flying had definitely repeated this veto several times.

I tried, in the end, the Station Commander. He was graciously Archidiaconal but evasive: ‘I’ll see if I can get some semi-official recognition of their presence,’ he conceded. ‘But Equipment is right. Our establishment is “for officers only”. Once we admit we’ve got sergeants here, we’ll be in danger of having
more. You do see, don’t you, that we don’t want any more of your fellows around? By the way, can’t you do something to smarten them up a bit?’

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