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BBC WW2 Peoples' War archive


‘Pilot training in the wartime Royal Air Force - Part II’

by Flying Officer F. A. R. Bennion RAFVR (191712)


From BBC WW2 Peoples' War archive - Article Id: A8975343

Doc. No. 2006.010


[From my unpublished autobiography.]

FB after being commissioned


Part II: Canada


St Andrews University issued me with a diploma, and I passed on to the next stage of my RAF career. This was elementary flying training at Woodley airfield near Reading. The aircraft in use there was the celebrated biplane known as the Tiger Moth. I already knew about that, having done as I said some preliminary studying with Tangye’s book Teach Yourself to Fly. I was kept at Woodley for only a short time. The RAF had negotiated a deal with the Government of Canada under which some of our aircrew cadets would be trained in that country. I was one of the first to profit from this, and set sail across the Atlantic in the steamship Báthory, named after the celebrated prince of Transylvania Sigismund Báthory. This ship was deemed fast enough not to need a convoy. We duly arrived at Moncton, New Brunswick, having outrun the German U Boats.


As, in 1942, aged eighteen, I stepped ashore at chilly Moncton after a voyage across the Atlantic I felt confused. It was good to have dodged the German U-boats, so I was glad about that. I was already missing my mother, so that made me sad. I had literally turned my back on the war in which I wanted to distinguish myself flying fighter planes. That again made me sad, for I was eager for action. What really obsessed me however was what would happen next?


At first we had a few days walking around Moncton. It was named after Lieutenant-General Robert Monckton, who was born in Yorkshire and came to Nova Scotia as a boy in the eighteenth century. There is no historic evidence of Monckton actually visiting the area of Moncton. He was at the head of the British troops as they took over Fort Beausejour and oversaw the deportation of the local population of Acadians. The township grew very slowly. By 1788 there were only twelve families living there. At the same time several Acadian families came back from exile. The growth of neighbouring communities in Halifax and St. John boosted the economic development of Moncton’s Township as well. In 1836 a regular stage coach and mail service started to operate thus connecting Halifax, Moncton Township and Saint John. In 1853 the first railway connected Shediac and St. John, thus further improving Moncton’s status as a transit place. In 1855 Moncton was incorporated as a city. As the result of a clerical error the ‘k’ was dropped from the city’s name. While it was obviously possible to correct that, the inhabitants and the Mayor Joseph Salter decided to leave it, and so it has remained.


We the starved, ration-bound, British lads grasped at once that the diners were the great attraction in Moncton. Strolling down Main Street, we saw them on either side. Every one was enticing, beckoning. Go in, and you were made welcome by bright girls in gingham dresses. The menus they thrust at you showed wonderful dishes, never known at home while Hitler threatened. Egg, ham and chips (unheard of). Steak and chips (also unknown). Delicious dill pickle as a side dish. Waffle and maple syrup. Wonders galore. All delectable to hungry young mouths.


When it comes down to it, military life for the other ranks is all a question of what happens next. I was, as an RAFVR aircrew cadet destined to be a commissioned pilot, marked out as a future officer. But I was not an officer yet, and was therefore still an ‘other rank’ or lowest of the low. The immediate future was withheld from me, for that was the way it was in the Armed Forces of the Crown. I believe it still is so, very largely. Probably it has to be, if one faces the facts of military service in a democracy.


My first Canadian impression was of intense cold. As I stood on a railway platform, awaiting the train that was to transport us westward across the vast continent, or at least part of the way for a start, I was suddenly physically assaulted. A very large man began beating me about the head with his open hand. Before I had time to be frightened, this man explained that his mission was to rescue my innocent boyish ears. He had seen that frostbite was beginning to take hold of them. I had failed to notice this, being unaware of the danger. He had perceived it, and taken the necessary action. Unknowing, I felt grateful — as was obviously the correct response. I remembered the dread chilblain-scarred ears of long-ago Charlie Furnival.


A huge steam locomotive then puffed in, heading a very long transcontinental train. The whole apparatus was larger than life, as I had known life back in England. I perceived that much greater distances demand much larger and more powerful trains. I got my kitbag on board and we set off. Our destination was Winnipeg, capital of Manitoba province. There, I was to meet two hospitable ladies, Helen and her younger sister José. Helen, twelve years my senior, told me a lot of things about Winnipeg. She also told me a lot of things about life, but I will begin with Winnipeg.


The name Winnipeg, Helen confided later as we snuggled together, derives from the Cree Indian words win nipee (muddy water). The city is at the confluence of the Red River and the Assiniboine River. Sixty-five kilometres to the north lies the vast spread of Lake Winnipeg. Ninety-five kilometres to the south is the American state of Minnesota. Winnipeg is surrounded by the prairie. On the prairie, over thousands of acres, grain is grown. When it is harvested it is stacked in tall grain elevators, each bearing in large letters the name of its location. The importance of that to novice aviators flying solo is obvious. It was scarcely possible to get lost if one stayed near the transcontinental railway line.


Indian names feature largely throughout this whole area, even south of the United States border. One such name I came to know was Neepawa near Winnipeg. Here the Royal Air Force had established on the prairie an airfield for the elementary flying training of transported youths such as I. So it was that I resumed my struggles (begun at Woodley) with the elegant Tiger Moth. This early single-engined biplane, held together by string, taught one the essence of flying in the sense of being in tune with the craft and directly aware of the outside elements. Today’s jet pilots know nothing of that joy of biplane piloting when one was wholly in touch with nature — not to mention dicey primitive petrol engines and string.


Although a warlike youth, committed to fighters and the RAF, I retained an awareness of possible future life - when the conflict engaging my present condition might perhaps have abated and a peacetime future opened up. The RAF authorities also had this sort of thing in mind, so we lads were offered various correspondence courses. I welcomed this, and chose the Art of the Fugue. With no real composing ability I produced (entirely by rote) a fugue worthy of Johann Sebastian Bach (worthy that is of his disdain).


One day our aircrew room had a visit from a reporter and photographer of the local newspaper, the Winnipeg Free Press (known as ‘Canada’s Gadfly’). Next day my photograph featured on the front page of the Gadfly. When the newsmen arrived (I had not known they were coming) I was, in typically extravagant mode, lying sprawled on the crewroom table reading a biography of the great Russian basso profundo Feodor Ivanovich Chaliapin. For some reason the reporters found this peculiar, and splashed it.


Now I must get back to dear Helen, then aged thirty (while I was eighteen). At that time kind Canada was eager to welcome British servicemen. The British Empire (God bless it) was still in full working order. So the township of Winnipeg had launched a welcoming scheme, which Helen and her sister joined. British servicemen were admitted into Winnipeg homes, and offered ungrudging hospitality. Helen worked for a local doctor, who had his own light aircraft. While the doctor acted as pilot as we zoomed over the prairie, Helen and I were snuggling oblivious in the cramped back seat.


The snuggling did not get very far, because, even though I was at a stroppy eighteen years of age, I was too green and inhibited to understand what was going on at the emotional and sexual level. Although I later proposed marriage to Helen (thankfully she refused me), I think looking back that I was regarding her more as a mother substitute than a lover. She gave me, as a token, Elbert Hubbard’s Scrap Book bound in red. It contained little gems of thought and philosophy. Hubbard, a follower of William Morris, died in the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. His Scrap Book conveyed a homely impression. There were some good things in it. Life, he truly said, is just one damn thing after another. Never explain, he said — your friends don’t need it and your enemies won’t believe it. Later I came to realise that one’s supposed friends are not necessarily to be relied on anyway.


I can see now that Helen and her sister José were working a racket, or what would now be called a scam. Hundreds of naive British youths were arriving in their town, homesick and confused. It was respectable to offer them hospitality, but therein lay an opportunity for a pair of unmarried sisters who lived together and fancied young male flesh. I was too innocent to be of much use to them. There were intimate opportunities in their bedroom. I revelled in this intimacy but through modesty kept my underwear on at all times. I was, as I have said, a late developer. Looking back, I can imagine how frustrated those two women were at my obtuseness. Helen controlled her irritation, and was always kind. José quickly gave me up as hopeless and looked elsewhere among the incoming English youths.


There was much to do on the airfield. I was engaged in what was called elementary flying training, now starting to use Magisters instead of Tiger Moths. The Magister was a single-engined monoplane. My earliest memory is of arriving at the airfield to find that the tarmac had been freshly hosed down. When I asked why I was told that one of my fellow cadets, an amiable straw-headed yokel known to us as Joseph, had some minutes before absently walked into a whirling propeller. That was the end of him. His blood stained the tarmac, which was at once hosed down.


I enjoyed my flying training. There was an epochal moment known as the first solo, when one was at last considered competent to fly an aircraft all alone by oneself in that strange, clever contraption. I was given my final test by Flight Lieutenant Mavrogordato, who was inclined to let me get on with it. I performed the usual manoeuvres without incident, then it was time for the forced landing. Here the instructor suddenly pulls back the throttle and tells you to pretend there is an engine failure. With a single-engined aircraft there is then only one outcome, namely finding somewhere to land.


Through my goggles, canopy pushed back, I looked down for a suitable field and spotted one. I began the engineless descent. After a while it became clear to me that I had misjudged the angle. We were coming in much too high. At that point I remembered the falling leaf, as described in Tangye’s Teach Yourself to Fly. I had never been taught this manoeuvre by the RAF, but never mind. For the first time in my life I did the falling leaf, and it worked. Flight Lieutenant Mavrogordato grinned, said nothing, and later awarded me an above average rating.


The next stage of my flying training involved a move westwards to Calgary. Now I was faced with a more powerful single-engined monoplane known as a Harvard. I revelled in its added power, and enthusiastically learnt aerobatics. Looping the loop, or flying through the vertical in a complete circle, offered no problems. All one had to do was get up enough speed to start with and retain sufficient nerve to carry on. The slow roll was more problematic because it brought gravity into play. At the top of the roll all the dirt from the bottom of the cockpit fell down through the air. One’s stomach fell with it.


Most of my training on Harvards involved solo flights over the prairie. As previously at Neepawa I found the best navigational aid was low flying alongside one of the numerous grain elevators, every one of which displayed its location, as I have said, in large letters on the side of the building.


As I entered the crew room after one solo training flight I was told to report to the Station Commander’s office. The Calgary airfield Station Commander at that time was Group Captain Primrose. He was one of those who marked the men from the boys, and maintained iron discipline. A firm line was drawn between RAF officers who had joined up in peacetime as regulars, intending to make the service their career, and those like me and many thousand others who were just in it ‘for the duration’. The Adjutant told me I was on a charge. ‘What charge?’ I stammered. The answer was low flying and low aerobatics when flying solo as a pupil in a Harvard. I protested my innocence. The Adjutant said it concerned today’s solo flying stint, from which I had just landed. One of the instructors had spotted me, and would be the chief witness for the prosecution. It was not to be a court martial, just a Station Commander’s unofficial enquiry.


While waiting to be admitted to the presence of Group Captain Primrose I reflected on the oddity of fate. True it was that I had very often, while flying solo, engaged in unlawful low flying and low aerobatics. It was a thing we all did when we thought we could get away with it. Trainee pilots flying solo regarded it as a point of honour to engage in low flying and low aerobatics. Some, more bold than I, even flew under bridges. Today, as it happened, I had not transgressed. For some reason I could not identify I had instead performed the required flying exercises in a sober and immaculate fashion, according to rule. Clearly I was a victim of mistaken identity. The instructor who reported me was in error. He had mistaken my Harvard for that of some other trainee.


The secure knowledge that I was innocent of the charge gave me unexpected strength when I was confronted with the flying instructor who was the chief witness against me. No one is so burningly conscious of innocence as the youth who transgresses often but did not transgress on the occasion charged. I defended myself before Group Captain Primrose with self-righteous vigour. Knowing absolutely nothing of cross-examination (not even the word itself), I cross-examined my accuser with vim. My sharp questions riddled holes in his testimony, and he retired defeated. I surprised myself, and what is more I surprised Group Captain Primrose. The prosecution were routed. The station commander formally acquitted me, then added: ‘Don’t do it again’. I was too surprised to object. That was the first and last time I saw Primrose, but I have unreasonably resented his parting shot ever since.


I duly qualified and was presented with my cherished pilot’s wings. I did not receive an officer’s commission at that point, and for a time had to be content with being a sergeant pilot. Looking back I can see that the reason for this comparative failure was a weakness for popularity. I can see that the cadets on my course, all of whom were clever, were not of one ilk. I did not realise this at the time, but some of them were middle class and some were working class. Which was I? Somewhere in between. These are crude distinctions, but I can think of none more accurate.


The fate of the successful cadets was ultimately to be classified either as officer aircrew or as non-commissioned aircrew. No one had explained that distinction to me, and at the crucial time I was not aware of it. Nor was I aware (because no one had told me) what I had to do, and not do, in order to end up being commissioned as an officer, which of course I would have liked to be — especially if I had begun to understand what the difference was.


I can see now that the basic trouble was that I was collared by the working class element among my colleagues on the course. They took me up, flattered me, and gave me a nickname (Benny). More important they imbued me for a time with that fatal working class attitude that it is clever to disdain work and effort, smart to slack, and absurd to aspire to achievement.


I returned by RMS Queen Elizabeth to docks in the River Clyde. My fate was not after all to be a fighter pilot, which I had schemed for. The scheming was successful, and I was officially recommended for posting to a fighter squadron. My ambition was defeated by a simple fact. At the crucial time new fighter pilots were not required. So my fate was to be a bus-driver pilot on Wellington bombers, of which a total of 11,461 were built. I am told only one survives, in the RAF museum at Hendon.