Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum Canada 150 Project

Commonwealth Air Training Plan Museum
Canada 150 Vignette – 051 of 150
British Commonwealth Air Training Plan
A World War II Memory - Sam & Glen Merrifield

  
Our first installment of this wartime memory was published in our Canada 150 Vignette No. 48. It followed brothers Stan and Glen Merrifield from tennage life on the farm in Shoal Lake Manitoba to their completion of British Commonwealth Air Training Plan training. At that time, we had no intention of going into their experiences overseas with the Royal Canadian Air Force. A second reading of the rest of the story brought us to the conclusion that it was loaded with wonderful insights into all facets of life as airmen in a foreign country during World War II. We decided to serialize the story (25000 words) into 14 installments to be published in our Canada 150 Vignette serices. This is the second installments and it explores Stan and Glen's voyage to England to join the  No. 3 Bomber Group the Marham Aerodrome in Norfolk England. 

We loafed around until the 27th of September when we were taken with our worldly belongings to docks and put on the Duchess of Athol, a CPR boat; there was one more air force man who was an Air Commodore. All the other passengers were civilians and included the actors, actresses and film crews returning to Britain after filming scenes of "49th Parallel". 
  ​​​​
​Glen and Sam Merrefield on furlough in Scotland
We were put into cabins which held four people and in addition to Glen and myself, our cabin had Dick Lewington and Teddy True both of whom had been in our class and both of whom had lived in England. Dick until he came to Canada and Teddy as a child while his father was with the Canadian Diplomatic Service. One evening we saw some of the film shot in Canada, mostly at Banff, but while they tried to fill in the story it is not a highlight in my memory.

The currency used on the boat was the British Sterling and the first thing we had to do was to change our Canadian money into Pounds. As I recall the exchange rate was four dollars and eighty cents for each Pound. Glen was given a five Pound note in part payment for his money. At that time such notes were printed on one side only of a tissue like material which had to be folded over to bring it down to the size of an ordinary note. He treated it with a certain amount of scepticism and was not long in spending a part of it to get change in one pound notes which looked and felt more like the money we were used to handling.

I have no recollection of what the eating arrangements were but I believe that we ate in the same dining facilities that the other tourist class civilians used. In any event we fared much better than we would have had we been on a troopship. We were not in a convoy and as a result, we were given duties doing submarine lookout, which involved standing at the front of the deck just below the bridge keeping a lookout for submarine periscopes. The shifts were for two hours and came around every two days, with two men on each shift. The only thing spotted was in our last day out when the Air Commodore who was checking up on us, spotted what turned out to be a deflated barrage balloon floating past some distance from the boat.

The trip took eight days and after landing in Liverpool on October 5 we were taken to Padgate, a depot near Warrington, Lancashire. We were there until October 11, 1940 and were introduced to the British way of doing things which was to make your bed in a specified manner and to keep the floor area under and around it highly polished. In the early evenings we would go into Warrington to the cinema or pubs on the bus, however, when the air raid sounded, which was most evenings, the busses stopped where they were until the all-clear sounded. This meant that we were obliged to walk back from town to be in by the prescribed time.


Glen, myself and Jack Duller were all sent to Marham Norfolk and it was a long tedious day making the trip by train with two train changes before we arrived in Kings Lynn, Norfolk about nine o'clock in the evening. From there we went to the Airdrome at Marham by bus which was returning after having taken people to the base city for the evening.


We arrived in time to be given beds in the barracks room occupied by signals people being all air force except one who was an army signalman called Stiffy Hardwick who maintained the equipment at the transmitter station. While some of the others were newly in the air force, several of.the others in the signal section were permanent force men with three or four of them having gone through Cranwell, the RAF signal school, as boy apprentices who joined up at the age of fifteen or sixteen and had therefore had several years training. They were known as Trenchard's Brats. Trenchard being the first head of the RAF after it was changed from RFC. Many had been through France and Norway and were the backbone of the fine technical standard of the RAF at that period. As boys, they spent part of each day learning airforce trades and the rest of the day with general school activities befitting boys their age. These general school activities were shortened to Gen, an abbreviation that became the word used for any information on any subject.


Marham was a permanent air force base and had red brick buildings. At one end of the square were the headquarters offices with the signals section at the rear and all was surrounded by a high brick wall heavily banked on the outside with earth. The canteen movie and other recreational facilities for the enlisted men were at the other end of the square. There were three barracks blocks along each side of the square. The facilities for the officers were back off the square but I do not recall in which direction.
The airdrome was in Three Group and contained two Bomber Squadrons flying Wellington aircraft powered by Pegasus Engines. Since our work was in the signals cabin, there was no need for us to get out among the aircraft and we never even walked over to the hangars during the eight months we were there. Glen said he did and was asked his business as security was much tighter in the early part of the war. As well as wireless operators, the signal cabin was staffed by teleprinter operators who also resided in the same barracks as we did. During the day shift, they were busier than we because they were constantly sending and receiving messages whereas the wireless operators had only to tune in on the air ministry frequency every hour on the hour and only rarely was there a message to take down, always in code.


On nights when there were operations there was a full complement of operators listening on five or six frequencies. The aircraft maintained radio silence until they had dropped their bombs after which they sent an 'X' signal code saying so. They again called once they had crossed the enemy coast and nothing more unless they were in trouble. Once they were back in England and close to the landing field they switched to the command set and spoke to the control tower. On nights when there was no ops on there was only a wireless operator and a teleprinter operator on duty along with a watch Corporal. We would take turns staying awake for two hours and we could operate the teleprinters well enough to acknowledge receipt of a message and the teleprinter operators could read enough Morse code to know if there was or was not a message. If there was a message to come they would awaken the operator to take it. When not awake, we slept on the coconut matting on the floor using our ever present Gas Masks for a pillow.


Our Signals Officer was a Flight Lieutenant by the name of George Reece and the English chaps referred to him as the Wolfe of the signals cabin. He was a taciturn individual and I think the only time I had a conversation with him was when we were leaving the station at which time he wished us good luck. Our presence at the station was a cause for some concern because we three Canadians were leading aircraftsmen while the English chaps who were better trained than we, were only AC2' s or AC1 's. Our pay was also a great deal more than theirs, however, we had assigned some of our pay home to be saved for us and the net result was that on paydays we received about the same amount of cash as the others did.


There was a General Duties kid in our barracks, an AC2, whose daily pay was only sixpence which at the rate of exchange was only twelve cents compared to our two dollars. This lad always needed some extra pocket money and was more than glad to polish the area under our bed for sixpence, which was done once a week the evening before the inspection of the barracks.


I don't think we had a day off as such but because we were on shift work, a change in shifts could result in a 32 hour respite when there was ample time to run into Kings Lynn on the camp bus which left daily about noon and returned about eleven in the evening. This gave us time to do some sightseeing, have our tea and see an early showing of a movie before going back to camp. One of the teleprinter operators that I frequently was on shift with was Jimmy Corbold who came from Bury, St. Edmunds where his mother ran a pub and on two or three occasions,I went home with him by the usual method of hitch hiking.


Jack Duller brought a silver grey shirt overseas with him which he wore on dress occasions. He was frequently accosted by the authorities who he convinced that it was permissible Canadian issue. One of our Corporals purchased a car and one night four of us went off to a dance at Downham Market. During the war, all automobiles had shields on their headlights to restrict the amount of light given and thereby reducing the field of vision to a few feet. Coming home the driver mistook a white line on the edge of a tank barrier at the side of the road and on a curve, for the line on the road, with the result that we crashed into the barrier and wrecked the car. Except for a few bruises and some cuts to the Corporal's face, we came off very well. We were taken to the home of a local ARP Warden who attended the cuts and then drove us home. During the dance while I was dancing with the daughter of the master of ceremonies, we won a spot dance and my prize was a pair of gold plated cuff links which had been purchased by the donor for her son who was an aircrew member of the RAF and had been killed before she was able to give them to him.
Every three months we were entitled to a seven day leave and at least one forty eight hour pass. If one took them together and began leave just after a shift change, it added up to ten days. Every other leave entitled us to a railway warrant to any place in the British Isles, which gave us free transportation. When the time came around for our first leave, we thought that Glen, Jack Duller and I could all go together but somehow that was rejected and we had to go separately.


Both Glen and I went to Glasgow which was not being bombed as frequently nor as heavily as London. The Fitzroy Hotel on the end of Sauchihall street had been converted into an overseas service mans facility and I was able to get a room for a very nominal sum during my stay.


Sometime in April, Jack Duller contacted pneumonia and was sent to a Military Hospital in Ely. At or about the same time, Glen was either on leave or on a course and learned that the powers that be intended forming  all Canadian Squadrons and he was able to get the name of someone to contact to request a posting to such a squadron. The result was that on the 12th of May 1941 we bid good-bye to Marham Norfolk and went to Driffield, Yorkshire. Jack was still in hospital and while he was also posted he did not arrive until 405 Squadron had moved to Pocklington some weeks later.


Glen here. . . . the name I was given was F/Lt Hammond c/o Air Ministry, London. After our successful posting I passed this information on to all Canadian lads I met who would want the same treatment One later told me he got holy hell for doing an end run around his CO and the establishment and writing Air Ministry. All I can say is I am one LAC who did it and got results and no brickbats.