My Time with "Y"

"Y" Service was responsible for some of the most unproductive and frustrating months of my wartime existence within the Royal Air Force."Y" should never have been part of the RAF, and I was shovelled into it without explanation or opportunity to opt out. They tell me it is still under wraps. When I sought information about it for a possible article, I was left facing a blank wall. Today, all kinds of wartime secrets are being revealed, and former spies and intelligence agents, who should still be locked up because of the enormity of their betrayals, are babbling away in books and broadcasts with complete freedom.

It was really all my own fault, and it happened this way. Together with my close air force chums, Bob Clegg and Richard Beattie, I was helping to run a wireless DF station at Tatenhill, near Burton on Trent. Tatenhill was a satellite for 27 OTU at Lichfield, and all types of aircraft used it, including Ansons, Airspeed Oxfords and Vickers Wellingtons. Essentially it was a training station, but several 27 OTU Wimpies took part in the first 1,000 bomber raid on Cologne.

As direction finding operators we had the responsibility for guiding aircraft back to base, sometimes through fog and around balloon barrages. Our cabin was outside the perimeter of the airfield and smack bang at the end of the main runway. It was a perilous position, but it never seemed to worry us. Apart from one group captain who caught me whitewashing the cabin ceiling which had been blackened by too many fry ups on an unpredictable primus, we were left well alone. For one thing we were held somewhat in awe by the other airmen, and to get to us you had to follow a muddy track to the middle of a turnip field.We worked shifts and came and went according to the weather and our own arrangements. It was, in RAF terms, a cushy billet.

Compared with others, we were sitting pretty, and might have remained so until the end of the war, but we all had itchy feet and a longing for adventure, so we volunteered for overseas duties. The response from our masters was not long in coming, and it amounted to the end of our freedom and any intelligent and worthwhile contribution to the war effort.

We found ourselves shackled to "Y".

Dark Secrets

Why was it called "Y"? I often thought it stood for "yawn" or "yuck" or just plain "why?" because I found it so unbelievably boring and time wasting. The initial "Y" was never explained, and the superior types who put the clamps on us spoke of the organisation in hushed tones and made us to sign the Official Secrets Act. For my part, I knew right from the start that I was not temperamentally suited for it, although others today may tell you how honoured they were to be caught up in its mysterious folds.

Can I possibly tell you what it was all about? And if I do, will I be in danger one dark night of being whisked away in a black van, never to be seen again? The truth is that it was - and probably still is - a badly organised, so-called Intelligence body run by faceless brasshats and manned by ill briefed and demoralised airmen. The people behind it in my day were all-powerful. So powerful in fact that even Earl Louis Mountbatten of Burma could not effect my release from its sticky tentacles. More on this later.

Why such a flimsy, facile, tacky outfit should still remain on the secret list is anyone's guess. My theory is that it is so ineffectual that if the truth became known it would be closed down immediately, thus saving the taxpayers a great amount of money.

It is a listening organisation. Government and military radio signals from around the world are monitored, recorded and decoded by groups of operators constantly searching the wave bands. The results are duplicated and fed to the various intelligence agencies for information or action. It is mind numbing work listening to low-powered signals, trying to identify them and then fix their positions. The silly thing is that almost every country in the world is playing the listening game. They know we are listening to them and we know they are listening to us. They mostly send rubbish or routine messages and anything really secret is delivered by more secure means.

I have no doubt that it is now much more sophisticated, with military commanders and spies exchanging commands and information via the Internet. With the help of computers, of course, the task of decoding messages is much simpler, and the eggheads I used to see puzzling over Japanese codes have given way to Macintosh machines.

Well, that's where we found ourselves in the middle of the war - a secret establishment just outside Rugby, subject to rigid discipline and not an aircraft in sight. We knew we were bound for Burma and all that because for a start we had to learn the Japanese morse code with all its twiddly bits, and most of the barmaids in Rugby knew that as well. We were housed in stables, drilled by day and worked over by night. You are special, they told us when we first arrived. So special were we that fatigues and guard duty became part of our lives and there was no respite or leave for what seemed like ages.

To me it was like moving from heaven to hell. I had revelled in the sight, sound and smell of aircraft, of airfields at night, with the gooseneck flares flickering away along the runways; the green flash of the duty pilot's aldis to circling planes, and the occasional red very light to warn them off; of cycling round the perimeter track in the early morning, with the sun just coming up, the sweet smell of grass and the expectation of another exciting day ahead. There were test flights in Wimpies and the occasional trip as a supernumary crew member way out over the North Sea, constantly on the alert for bandits.

Then, all too quickly, we found ourselves stuck, straight jacketed, unable to escape.

Hush Hush Brigade

I have tried to find out whether this particular section of "Y" achieved anything at all during the war. Assessments, it appears, are still restricted, and the chaps who had to keep their heads down and do all the donkey work 24 hours a day were never told the results, if any, of their labours. An appalling omission, but typical of the hush hush brigade.

When we left Gourock in Scotland in the flag ship of a convoy heading for the Far East we were more than apprehensive. As I have said, the local barmaids had known our destination before we did. It was Bombay, and from there overland to Burma and the war we weren't winning. Such was the ferocity of the Japanese.advance at this time that it had even been suggested that we were setting out on a fool's errand and much too late because the Nips would be sweeping across the Indian continent long before we landed.

Our ship was the armed merchant cruiser Ranchi, and she carried more than a thousand troops all heading in that same direction which you weren't allowed to mention. I have written elsewhere about our narrow escape from oblivion on this vessel, which was subjected to an enemy air attack lasting several hours off the coast of Bengazi. We were struck amidships by a bomb which should have blown us out of the water but instead struck a steel stanchion and was deflected through the side of the Ranchi into the sea where it exploded close to the ship sending a huge column of water in the air and down the open hatches. Several people were killed, and it was a very close shave, described by some as a miracle.

Before this nasty event I had helped to create a concert party from among the troops on board. We called it the En-Route Concert Party and it was enormously popular because we were able to deliver disparaging jokes about some of the senior officers and make comic comment on the stifling conditions below decks.

The damage to Ranchi was such that we were disembarked in Alexandria and put into a transit camp to await another troopship. The concert party remained active and gave several performances in Alex where we were spotted by none other than Basil Dean, the head of ENSA, the Services entertainments body. Would we be prepared to travel around the Western Desert to cheer up the troops there? It would be to our advantage, he said. He liked us so much that he was going to ask the RAF to release us from our draft and second us to him. He'd be happy to find us decent accommodation in Alex and there'd be prospects for promotion. Were we interested? Oh, yes, yes, yes, we blurted. It would be goodbye to purgatory and back to heaven in one leap. So off to El Alemain and Tobruk and other famous outposts we set determined to prove our worth.

Everywhere we went we were greeted like stars and enjoyed much hospitality in the messes of the Desert Rats. What egoistical suckers we were!

There was only one hitch. One night, after a long trek we arrived at an odd, isolated place full of sad looking soldiers. However, the hall to which we were taken, was packed tight and we gave of our best. The strange thing was that all our jokes went down like lead balloons, and only one item was received with any acclaim, and that was the Meet Mr. Hitler act, in which one member of the party strode in wearing the full Hitler regalia, pointed his finger at people, foamed at the mouth, stamped his feet and screamed. We had thought it awfully old hat, but the audience was bowled over by it, stood up, and made rude gestures in return. Adolph was a definite hit.

I wasn't until the final curtain that we learnt we had been performing to an audience consisting entirely of Italian PoWs, few of whom knew any English.

The days went by quickly and we unwisely kept reminding the other members of the draft of our good prospects and of their misfortune in not volunteering for the concert party. On the day of embarkment there was no news from ENSA and we were told to pack our kitbags and join the rest of our chums on a rusty old tub named The City of London. Basil Dean (who was later knighted) had been unable to pull any strings.

Up the Brahma Putra

Our epic five-day train journey from Bombay to Calcutta proved two things - 1. That no-one was going to be in a hurry to look after our welfare, and 2. that bully beef and hard biscuits are not particularly good for morale. As for a WC, there was none, apart from a filthy hole in a carriage cubicle.

We arrived in Calcutta at the height of the Bengal famine in which between two to three million Indians died. The sight of emaciated women and children picking at garbage cans in their search for food was enough to make us wonder at the morality of mankind and what kind of war we were in. To escape the dull monotony of listening out for Japanese signals in an ill-ventilated radio room I volunteered to escort a collection of "Y" equipment up the Brahma Putra River to Comilla and Chitagong on the Burmese border. It was Infal time, with an entire "Y" unit cut off and surrounded. A brave boy was needed to be dropped in with some special gear. I nearly fell for it, but fortunately Infal was relieved and so was I.

By now I had suffered all the diseases that Bengal can produce, including, amoebic dysentery (twice), dengie fever, jaundice (twice), what appeared to be sleeping sickness, and septic prickly heat of the face, and I was in a deteriorating condition.

One day there was a sight to behold. Outside our small HQ in Ballygunge a brand new jeep pulled up driven by a naval officer in a uniform so white and bright as to be dazzling. It was like the arrival of a creature from outer space.

This pink-faced being, with gold braid halfway up his sleeves, jumped from his chariot and strode up to "Woody" (Flight Lieutenant Forrester) the unit's CO. "Woody" goggled and saluted, but the gesture was not returned. Puffing away at a large cigar the naval type demanded: "I"m looking for a chap named Johnny Behague. Is he here?" "Woody" somewhat hesitantly pointed in my direction, and with a bound, then with his arm wrapped around my shoulders, the naval commander propelled me to the shade of a tree. "Great to see you, Johnny", he said, "Frank has sent me with an urgent proposition. He wants you to join him."

"Heh?" I stuttered. "Frank?" "Yes, Frank Owen. You know him. He used to edit the Daily Mail. Now Mountbatten's persuaded him to start a newspaper for the SEAC forces. Morale's so bad that something has to be done, and Frank's been given carte blanche to recruit a team and get cracking, and you seem to be the only chap here who knows anything about sub-editing." I had earlier visited the editor of The Statesman newspaper in Calcutta, who had obviously passed my name on.

"Well?" demanded the pink-faced one, who identified himself as Ian Coster, Owen's No. 2. "Will you join us? You'll get promotion of course and a decent place to live, so what about it?" I gulped. "Yes, yes," I said, and away he went with a wave of his hand and a puff of blue cigar smoke.

I didn't tell anyone because I had learnt my lesson from the last time. It was odd that "Woody" never asked me who the naval type was, but he was that kind of person. Ask no questions in "Y" Service!

A week went by and nothing happened, so I rang Coster at the number he'd given me. "Oh Lord!" he said "We're having trouble with your ruddy RAF bosses. They're playing silly buggers. But don't worry, Frank is seeing Mountbatten tomorrow and will tell him to action your transfer pronto. This is top priority stuff and Mountbatten's under orders from No. 10! Don't worry. Things will start moving soon!"

They didn't. A full fortnight went by, and still no word. I WAS worried and phoned Ian Coster again. There were a series of muffled oaths from the other end. "I don't know who you've got yourself tied up with", he exclaimed, "but they refuse point blank to release you. Even Lord Louis can't shift them. So that's that.. Hard luck, old chap." And that was it. Or was it? Clearly, the:wiseacres at "Y" were capable of fooling the topmost echelons about their supposedly secret operations, and I could see my chances of escape diminishing with every day. If Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten, Supreme Allied Commander for South East Asia, couldn't get me off the hook, I was doomed.

Salvation At Last!

By this time I was decidedly ill and had just returned to the unit from the Loretta Convent which had been turned into a dysentery hospital. I was sapped of energy and falling asleep all over the place, not at all a good thing for an efficient "Y" merchant. The next time I reported sick the MO tut tutted and sent me to see a specialist who appeared quite concerned about my condition and put me through the medical hoop, stuck pins in me, consulted his colleagues and said there wasn't much he could do, apart from send me home.

Then, surprisingly, he said: "What do you suggest?"

I replied, "What I'd like more than anything else is to get back to the real air force on a fully operational station, doing the job I was trained to do." That startled him, and later somewhere at the top of "Y" someone must have blinked because I was quickly transferred to 99 Squadron in Jessore, and never looked back. Well, I did occasionally when I remembered my wasted time with "Y". I had returned to the land of the living and my health quickly improved.

As for the chums I left behind at "Y", they had a terrible time in Burma and emerged emaciated, half-starved and thoroughly cheesed off. When I later asked those of the survivors I met up with again what they thought of "Y" they all judged it a pretty poor show.

So much for one man's view of "Y" Service.


Postscript. That was written several years ago. It's now January 1999 and a series of programmes extolling the virtues of "Y" have appeared on Channel 4 TV under the title "Station X". Station X was the name given to Bletchley Park, a country house near Milton Keynes in Buckinghamshire. It was the HQ of the "Y" code breakers and its wartime occupants were invited back by the programme makers to relate their experiences.

They were an odd lot. Mostly upper crust women who were all sworn to secrecy but had little idea of what "Y" meant, they served a group of academic eggheads whose task it was to unlock enemy codes. The celebrated mathematician, Alan Turing, was one such member, who is said to have cycled around the peaceful countryside wearing a gas mask.

That they succeeded in cracking the German encoding machine, Enigma, was a feat bordering on the miraculous, and by doing so it is clear that they were able to intercept messages addressed to U-boats and thus save many lives.

I can only record my own personal impressions after being switched from a vital job involving aircraft and aircrews and guiding them home, to one of brain clogging boredom, with the results of my labours (if you can call them that) never revealed. There was always the feeling that they thought you were not important enough to be trusted, or intelligent enough to be told anything at all about what was going on.

My conclusion is that my superiors at the top, despite their code-breaking skills, were intellectually stupid, and this was borne out by some of the remarks made by those who enjoyed their quiet war at Bletchley Park.


Back to the beginning.