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A World War II Memory -  Sam and Glen Merrifield Part 10

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Glen and Sam Merrifield along with their friend Stoney Stonehouse, continue to spin tales of their life as Royal Canadian Air Force ground crew working with 405 Squadron during World War II. The find themselves continuing their war from  St. Eval,  an isolated RAF Station in the southwest of England.

Stoney (friend Russ Stonehouse) says "Remember the North Africa Campaign and how 405 was taken from Bomber Command to replace the RAF Liberator Squadron at Beaulieu to do Coastal Command work in support of Montgomery's" push in North Africa. How we had to chase ponies off the runways to get aircraft in the air. No hangars to do major overhaul etc.. Then the night the Canadian Army Ambulance rolled in from Poole (outside Bournemouth) rifled two barrels of beer from the Sgt's Mess and took off. About one of the slickest commando raids of the war. Naturally all Canadians from the squadron were accused of the operation. Also how the pubs in the village of Brockenhurst (near Beaulieu) would not allow us into the lounge of the pubs because all we had to wear was battle dress. Our dress blues in most cases were still at Topcliffe and the billeting at Beaulieu was not all the best and we just did not worry about No. 1 Blues. At Beaulieu we were always in dutch with the Service Police because our I. D. Cards had our Squadron number etc. blacked out as the squadron was on special duty and we were not to identify our squadron as such. (Real top secret but Lord Haw-Haw knew where we were) Oh how we abused that little privilege around Bournemouth.

During our stay in Beaulieu I had my leave over New Years which was spent in Edinburgh for the third "Hogmenay" in a row in Scotland. My dancing partner on that leave had to be in Dalkeith, eight miles away, for a family get together New Years morning and we wished to welcome in the New Year at the large Palais de Dance in the city. The problem was the scarcity of taxis, and the cost, and the bus system which stopped at 11 p.m. You guessed it· ... we walked. Rather than walk back alone I called in to the local police station and they put me up in a cell I caught the bus back to the city in the morning.

Our Halifaxes had depth charges and an added gas tank in the bomb bays for these coastal command stooges but often when extra penetration and time in the air was required we used St Eval as a forward base. The following 1981 anecdote entitled "St Eval Cough" follows;

St Eval was a Coastal Command Station on the Bristol Channel. While we were doing our Coastal Command assignment from Beaulieu we used St Eval as a forward base to get a deeper penetration into the Bay of Biscay. This particular time four aircraft went to St Eval and as we readied for takeoff the next morning, with our skeleton ground crew watching, the aircrew member setting the detonation switches tripped the one for the engine fire extinguishers. Well that aircraft did not get away that morning and all day long we ran the
engines and they coughed and coughed and coughed. When the other aircraft returned and it was time to return to Beaulieu that evening they were still 


  
St. Eval Tower
St. Eval from the air
St. Eval location related
to the Bay of Biscay
coughing. The S/Ldr (I forget who he was) put the faulty crew in his aircraft and taking a volunteer F/E and Nav. decided to try to get the aircraft home. St Eval is built atop a cliff. The main runway has a drop of a couple of hundred feet onto the water .As that aircraft with the engines still missing on occasion charged down the runway and dropped off the end it seemed a long time until it appeared again out over the water. It was well beyond the call of duty. Brave lads. Typical 405 press on types. Got home. The rest of us flew home in good aircraft.

From Beaulieu our aircraft left about 4 a.m. to be in position over the Bay of Biscay before
daylight. We were assigned in our turn to be on takeoff duty to cover any minor repairs needed. Because there were no Hangars or buildings out on the drome it was a cold unpopular job which became worse due to the problems discussed in the next anecdote called the "New Forest".


Beaulieu Airdrome where we operated for four months for Coastal Command was in the heart of the New Forest and electric power was in short supply. We had electric lights in the messes but not in the huts or ablutions. Our nearest ablutions were more than a quarter of a mile away and that's a long way when your taking short steps. Now we were lucky as a chemical toilet left by the contractors who were building the drome was in the woods near our Nissen hut. The New Forest is famous for its wild ponies but we also had a large old sow pig with a litter who grunted around in the woods near our hut. Dysentery struck and went around like wildfire and the chemical toilet was a welcome neighbor. The toilet was in a small shelter with no door but a change in direction in the entrance for privacy purposes. This cold rainy dark night one of our guys headed for the head - if navy terms are allowed - but the old sow was sleeping in the entrance for protection from the storm. The fellow stepped on the sow. The sow stood up. The guy went sprawling and between the mud and the brown stuff he was so dirty and smelly we wouldn't let him back into the hut until he had walked the distance in the rain to clean up at the regular ablutions. 


No names, no pack-drill. Big Smitty, the large headed man in the front row, near the center of the Leeming Squadron picture was our Engineering Officer. He endeared himself to the boys on Beaulieu when the RAF Station Group Captain complained about the problem caused in the area because of the arrival of the Canadians. Smitty, a F/Lt, although badly outranked, told him we were Bomber Command types and did not want to be on his damn station but now we were there he was bloody well going to look after us and be thankful we were pulling his ass out of the fire as his other squadron was useless.


The food at Beaulieu hit all time low. However I guess the unfinished drome facilities had something to do with it. A WAAF with no hair, who served us meals, did not help, although often she wore a scarf over her head. As we are on the subject maybe this is a good time to throw in the anecdote I wrote on food in early 1980's.

Early in the war, when we were at the permanent dromes with their brick buildings and compact layout we went to our billet and picked up our pint mug and irons (knife, fork and spoon) as we went to and from the airmen’s mess. Later at places like Grandsden Lodge facilities were widely dispersed and we all carried our mugs and irons in a shoulder strap bag as we bicycled around the drome from location to location. The airmen’s mess worked on a four meal ( ?? ) per day system, breakfast, dinner, tea and supper. About 50% went to breakfast and 5% to supper. The other two meals were well attended. Breakfast was usually a bowl of porridge, the milk and sugar already mixed in, and a plate with a piece of boiled cod fish or some unpalatable item, with a slice of bread (often no margarine) and a pint mug of tea with the milk and sugar already mixed in. When we fogged in with no operational meals for several days the eggs (bacon and eggs were the ops supper favorites) went to the airmen’s mess. Word spread like wildfire and the breakfast attendance went up to nearly 100%. Now these eggs (we never saw the bacon) were fried in large pans and cooked right through. Rubbery as hell but to us a real treat. Might happen four or five times a year. Most guys missed breakfast because it gave another half hours sleep and they could get a cup of tea (called a cuppa) and a bun (no butter or jam) at the NAAFI wagon that drove around the drome at mid-morning.

Dinner at noon was the main meal of the day and was usually beef, sliced very thin, and potatoes, gravy and a vegetable. Mostly the vegetable was Brussel sprouts, hence the name of the book, "Boys, Bombs and Brussel Sprouts". Dessert was usually a custard about ½ inch thick above a 1/8 inch layer of jam on top of a crust. You got a square about two inches each way. During garden season a large help yourself bowl of lettuce would be available. The standard large pint of tea washed it down. When newcomers to our hut enquired how I got the scar on the base of my neck some smart ass usually replied that I got stabbed by a WAAF as I reached for a second helping. They did not deny us from meanness, just so it would cover a fair share for all. Some went through a long line up for seconds but if the servers recognized you they would turn you away.

Tea was around 4:30 and was a light meal, say two sardines on a slice of toast, something like that. Two slices of bread on top of which one WAAF plunked a spoon of margarine and another a spoon of jam was the best part. The ever present pint of tea helped. Now the real artists came to the fore and to watch a good knife man move the jam to a corner, spread the margarine, and then rework the jam to produce a good looking piece of bread was a delight to witness. This had to be done on a bare board table with no side plate or napkins to help.

Supper was about 8 p.m. and was attended by very few for the following reasons; It was always soup made from the left overs of the previous day with plain bread and a cup of tea. On a dispersed drome it was often a mile away from your billet, often through the rain. The time was in the middle of the evening, when you were in town, or at the local pub, or in the middle of the poker game in the hut.


Parcels from home sometimes provided small snacks which could be enjoyed in the hut with the local purchased bread which was not rationed. Usually the people at supper had missed tea due to travelling back from leave or other reasons and was only considered when starvation threatened. The bread was always dark and it was against the law to sell or serve fresh bread. Newspapers reported butchers who went to jail for putting meat in their sausages and not just soy bean flour. All things considered we were better off than civilians and very little grumbling was heard. Food off the camp was hit or miss and even the good restaurants with the fancy menus ran out very quickly and served spam & chips or fish & chips to 95% of their customers. Special spots like London's Beaver Club, where a half hour line up for one doughnut was common, provided treats and were always a point of call. Rural areas, especially Scotland, were better off and milk to drink was sometimes available. It reads tough and points up how spoiled we are now when you remember how well we fared in those days and how healthy we were.


We guys on the ground crew often wondered how many of our a/c went down because of Jerry and how many went down because we did not maintain them well enough. Now we did our very best but still wondered. When we did our four month stint on Coastal Command I think we only lost one a/c so that gave us some evidence we were doing pretty well. (WE later held the Bomber Command Maintenance record on several occasions). We were flying Halifaxes at the time and they were a bit dicey with front turret... it got taken off later... improved the a/c a lot. This particular day an a/c came home on three engines and the idea was prevalent that if you got a dead engine on a Hally down you'd never get it back up. This pilot asked for permission for a right hand circuit so he could keep the engine up. This was not the normal way and coming around he stalled, and plowed in with the depth charges exploding and the awful results, right there at the drome with us all watching. This shook up the newer crew members and nobody believed the Halifax Co. representative who said it need not have happened. Well S/Ldr Lloyd Logan took up a Hally with a F/E to assist and he threw that a/c all over the sky. One engine out, two out, every combination of up, down and sideways. He beat up that drome so low you could count the rivets on his a/c. Quieted the boys down. Good show.


The road to Brockenhurst where we caught the train to Bournemouth or Southampton was a little used road through the New Forest and we biked it all the time with no lights on our bicycles. This night for some foolish reason the local cop stopped two of our lads on a small bridge just outside the town and demanded identification so they could be charged for no lights after dark on their bikes. As they fumbled in their pockets, stalling for time, two more lads arrived and they picked up the 'Bobby' and threw him over the bridge rail into the water and then threw his bicycle over the other side, and hightailed it to camp. This ride sobered them up and they became concerned later and reported their misdemeanor to the Squadron authorities who sent them on a swiftly arranged leave. As a result the week the "Bobby" spent surveying faces at the airmen’s, sergeant's and officer's messes did not reveal the culprits.


One more story about Beaulieu. During our time there a movie film was made about Bomber Command. I think that was the title "Bomber Command". We were all to be sent to the local village for special showings of this movie. Whether this was to show Bomber Command to Coastal Command or not, I do not know, anyway there wasn't all that much to be learned by we who had spent years in the Command. We were sent 25 or 30 at a time in the back of a 5 ton truck which dropped you off at the cinema and picked you up immediately following the show. Now the dysentery was still around at this point and Norm "Roxy" Lawson, a Winnipeger, asked Don McLaren, a Montrealer to get him some "Ant purgative" during his trip to see the show. Now Don had to really hustle to accomplish this and not get left behind by the truck. We were trucked there because it was on the far side of the drome with no regular bus service. I'm sure it was the only time I was ever in that town. McLaren gave his order, paid his money, grabbed his package and ran like hell to catch the truck. When he arrived at camp he gave Lawson his package and change. Lawson opened it to find he had a package of condoms. What else would a Canadian go into a pharmacy for ????? Our time in Beaulieu mud ended on March 1, 1943 when we returned to Topcliffe.


Photo credit: http://www.steval.co.uk/archive-items/jean-shaplands-book/