Life on 27 OTU

After my training as a W/Op D/F (wireless operator, direction finding) I was lucky to be granted the air station of my choice, which was RAF Lichfield, at Fradley, in Staffordshire. The warning from the wiseacres had been to never, never choose an airfield near your home town because the RAF didn't like its airmen to be distracted by family commitments or readily accessible bunk holes. Far better to concentrate their minds and skills far away from any ties, worried mums, dads or sweethearts.

The advice was to ask for a posting to, say, Shetland or the far north of Scotland, and with luck you'd probably be rewarded with a place much further south. I put in for Lichfield, and was promptly despatched to Fradley to join 27 OTU. It was conveniently situated just a few miles from Sutton Coldfield, where I lived. There was a l,ot of duff gen around in those dark, unpredictable days.

It was a big and extremely busy station when I joined it early in1942, with Vickers Wellingtons circuiting and bumping non-stop when not out over Welsh bombing ranges or peppering towed targets over the North Sea. Flying often went on for 24 hours a day, with only pea soupers to keep the kites grounded.

Training was intense, and, yes, the Wimpies were expected to fly in all weathers - come wind, rain, hail, thick cloud, snow or sleet - and it took fog or heavy snow to put the clamps on operations. Fradley was subject to more than its fair share of mist and murk but the task masters were determined to press on regardless. One training officer was nicknamed Killer X.... by some of the more outspoken crews from Down Under for his reputation in keeping them flying despite conditions you wouldn't send a dog out in, but he, in turn, was being hard pressed by his superiors at Group to step up the training hours because the demand for bomber crews was growing all the time. Popularity wasn't his second name but he knew where his duty lay and how things were in Bomber Command.

I have to remind you that by the middle of1941 the casualty rate had risen alarmingly, with 107 aircraft lost on ops in the first18 nights of August alone. On the OTUs the accident toll was appalling. Official figures show that 5,327 officers and men were killed and 3,113 injured while training. Some OTU courses lost 25 per cent of trainees before graduation.

Morale was remarkably high at Fradley, helped mainly I think by the presence of the large number of colonials who resented any form of red tape or bull. Those publicans in the area who may still be alive will remember their boisterous antics and capacity to knock back the local ale. The larger pubs, further afield at Lichfield and Burton-on-Trent, were also well attended and there were stories of encounters with the service police who didn't take kindly to men who walked around with their hands in their pockets wolf-whistling the girls.

There was one classic incident involving a group of Aussie aircrew on their way to a booze-up in Burton in a liberty truck. Travelling with them was a particularly officious SP who ticked off one of the Aussies for not buttoning up his jacket. The Diggers looked at one another, there was a cry of "heave ho!" and as one man they hurled the SP off the truck and into the middle of the road. He is said to have been injured, but the event was hushed up because the powers-that-be knew fliers were worth more than mere policemen, and in any case they'd probably be dead or posted before any punishment could be meted.

That's not to say there was a general lack of discipline at Fradley. Far from it, and the unglamorous, non-colonial rank and file knew it to their cost. There seemed to be a surplus of senior NCOs and general duty officers with nothing to do but get in your way and twist your tail. There was always the threat of being put on a charge, or fizzer, if you failed to salute someone or hadn't polished your buttons. This was war!

With me at 27 OTU was fellow D/Fer Bob Clegg who was once placed on two charges after reporting the theft of his greatcoat. He'd attended the Regal cinema in Lichfield and had left his coat in the cloakroom there. When he came out he found it had been stolen and a scruffy, ill-fitting coat left in its place. For this he was charged with (a) loss of greatcoat by neglect, and (b) improper possession of another. He received seven days jankers and was fined five pounds (which in today's money would represent about £100). He said the fine was bad enough but the charges and jankers added insult to injury.

Bob and I were fortunate in being posted from Fradley to a satellite airfield at Tatenhill, which was completely in the country. There was never more than a hundred and fifty bods there, all with responsible jobs to do, and no service police. It was a super station and we were left to get on with things without any hindrance or bullshit.

We arranged our own duty shifts and guided OTU aircraft home, around balloon barrages and from far afield. There we were, lords of all we surveyed (mainly turnips!), in a cosy wireless cabin stuck in the middle of a muddy field at the end of the main runway. We collected our rations, had memorable fry-ups on a blackened primus stove and were never ever visited by officialdom. We'd left that behind at Fradley.

We were billeted in a Nissen hut heated by a coke stove which kept the place radiantly warm. Starting it was always a pain until we were joined by an armourer named Twinkle Le Maire who had access to the stuff they put in incendiary bombs, and whoosh! every day we had instant ignition.

There wasn't much social life there but we all had bikes and when off duty or flying was scrubbed we'd take off down the hill into Burton, which provided plenty of entertainment. Returning up the hill in the late evening was a bit exhausting but we were young, the beer was good, and we lived for each day.

Vickers-Armstrong Wellington 111

There was a lot of flying for sprogs if you had the pluck to take to the air with rookie pilots and often rookier crews. I enjoyed my first flight in a Wellington from Tatenhill and formed an iimmediate affection for the machine. I also put in several hours on Ansons and Airspeed Oxfords. I was sometimes invited to help coach wireless ops in the art of direction finding, and on one occasion came close to being thrown out of a Wimpy at a great height by disgruntled Canadians. They'd been told to go out, get lost and come back using D/F. We cruised over Maplethorpe, hit a North Sea fog bank and genuinely got lost. I was pushed into the hot seat and told to come up with a QDM (bearing home), "NOW!". Unfortunately for me the set was u/s (unserviceable) and panic broke out. It was only when we sighted the river Trent through thickening mist that the Canucks regained some composure, but I was not forgiven.

When the RAF switched operational training from Tatenhill to the other satellite at Church Broughton and we were left to handle the odds and sods of air traffic, boredom crept in and Bob and I, together with another D/Fer , Richard Beattie, volunteered to go overseas. That was a mistake, and we were lucky to escape with our lives.

Footnote: My passion for the Wellington remains, despite many hours in Liberators, and it was a delight to find the Wellington Aviation Museum run by Gerry Tyack at Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire. That's where I picked up the picture at the top of this page. It was reproduced from a water colour by aviation artist Ken Aitken and commissioned by Gerry.


Go to Index