Reminiscences of Leading Aircraftman MICHEL J PITT Royal Air Force – September 1939 to June 1940
This is the summary of the publication “FITTER IN FRANCE” written by Michael Pitt, who as a nineteen year old lad worked in France as an airplane technician when World War II broke out. He belonged to the RAF No.12 Squadron ground crew. The book contains reports of attacks, RAF lists of losses, maps, original photos and a Roll of Honour.
Michael Pitt often visited the monuments and crash sites of the No.12 Squadron airplanes at Eigenbilzen and Veldwezelt.
Every year the events of 12 May 1940 are solemnly commemorated by veterans associations, local war committees and re-enactment clubs so the younger generations won’t forget.
The English version of this book is available at www.blenheimsociety.org.uk (mail order)
In the 1930s the Royal Air Force was the youngest branch of the British armed forces. The RAF formerly known as the WW1 Royal Flying Corps had become an important element of the British defence system. The airplane was being regarded as a useful military instrument by every European country.
As a young man Michael Pitt got fascinated by aviation. His examples were Cobban, Johnson and Lindbergh, men who had set speed and altitude records and who had shown courage and audacity.
In 1935 during an exhibition flight at RAF Chivenor airbase he talked to a few aircraft technicians who told him that they had finished a three-year apprenticeship and that they would soon train to become sergeant pilot. He rushed back on his bike to Bideford and told his family that he would become a RAF pilot.
A WILLING RECRUIT
In May 1936 aged sixteen I passed my apprenticeship entry exam. But at the end of the medical tests I was grievously disappointed to learn that I had defective colour vision. My flying ambitions were dead! I could have returned home but for who and for what? So I put on a blue Air Force uniform and became number 569810. I swore allegiance to King Edward VIII and became part of the 34th Entry.
The three years at Halton were very formative. You had to learn quickly that you were no longer an individual and you were the lowest of the low at least until the next entry arrived in six months’ time. I learnt to live harmoniously with others of different backgrounds and how to interpret Geordie and Highland accents. Writing home once week was obligatory as was a bath. We received technical and academic education with the opportunity to indulge in a lot of sporting and club activities. I left and entered “Men’s Service” in August 1939.
After my education at Halton, Bicester became my first station and No.12 Squadron my new home. Since February 1938 the squadron had been equipped with Fairy Battle aircraft. Life in the squadron was quite relaxing; the food was much better and there was 28 shillings a week spending money.
I trained for the servicing and maintenance of both airframes and engines. The first few days I spent working under the supervision of an LAC or Corporal. I was also often detailed for guard-duty.
Prior to leaving for France as part of the BEF, British Expeditionary Force, we were given a 48-hour pass, for which I went home to sleep in a comfortable bed for the last time in seven months.
THE MOVE TO FRANCE
On Saturday, September 2nd, at 1415 hours No.12 Squadron took off en route for Berry-au-Bac, approximately 20kms north of Reims.
Early on the morning of 16th September I travelled down to Southampton, the party consisting of two officers and 43 NCO’s. We boarded a ferry and we could see more and more troops coming on board. We set sail at about midnight and docked at Cherbourg. Here we spent most of the day sitting on our kitbags waiting for new orders. The train journey (about 500kms) from Cherbourg to Guignicourt, the nearest station to Berry-au-Bac, took over 24 hours. Transport took us to Berry where we joined our squadron buddies. I was filled with youthful happiness at the adventure just beginning.
Berry-au-Bac was a small village where most employment was derived from agriculture. Two cafés, a bakery and a Goulet-Turpin store met general needs. Clearly the village had suffered a lot during the First World War. There was little to do in the evenings, except for letter-writing, reading or visiting the cafés.
Every two or three weeks there would be an opportunity of transport to Reims. Five or six of us were billeted in a large farm on the N44 called Ferme Moscou. We climbed the outside staircase to reach our accommodation. We slept on large sacks of straw accompanied by mice and rats. Washing and shaving took place at the pump in the middle of the yard.
Every morning we marched to the Village Square for breakfast followed by the 8 a.m. Morning Parade. After a week or so, we were able to leave the delights of Ferme Moscou, moving into a large barn in the centre of the village. Once a week we would receive a round tin of fifty cigarettes. We used to leave the aerodrome at 17:00 hours, or earlier if dark, to have supper after which there would be boot and button cleaning. And then usually off to one of the local cafés.
On the opposite of the Mairie was a large farm where a seventeen-year-old beauty lived to whom I became quite attached. Mother gradually relaxed her role as chaperone but her father had higher hopes for his daughter Anne-Marie than an English airman. I learnt from her brother many years later that she had married a G.I. and now lived in California.
October came, and with it my 19th birthday, celebrated in great style with several friends. We consumed a menu of seven courses with appropriate wines. By the way, I was the only one to finish all seven courses, thereby earning the nickname of “Bottomless Pitt”. At about the same time, my promotion to LAC (Leading Aircraftsman) came through.
There was a great divide between us and the officers who were only seen by us at the aerodrome. All No.12 Squadron officers were housed in the Chateau at Guignicourt, about 7km to the east.
DE FAIREY – BATTLE
The first production Battles reached squadrons in May 1937. A full metal monoplane aircraft equipped with a Rolls-Royce Merlin engine producing 1030 horse-power. What had been an attractive, streamlined medium bomber (4 x 250lbs) in 1936, rapidly became a rather ponderous vehicle hampered by overweight, crew of three, heavy armour-plating, extra defensive armament etc. The identical engine propelled Spitfires and Hurricanes of half the weight at approximately twice the speed. On paper, it was supposed to be capable of a maximum speed of 241 mp, but pilots found these figures more than optimistic.
Slow and under-powered this type of aircraft as a low-level daylight bomber, stood no chance against the Luftwaffe’s Me.109’s and the very efficient flak in France in 1940. In just five days (10th – 14th May) the Battle Squadrons lost 63 aircraft out of 115 dispatched, a loss rate of 55%. Many others had to be written off after return because of irreparable damage, or through crash-landing, while many were destroyed on the ground during enemy attacks. Over those five days, 94 air crew were killed in action, 42 were taken prisoner and 21 wounded, a total of 157 casualties.
NUTS AND BOLTS
Working on an aircraft meant working exposed to all weathers. At the airfield the bombers were all out in the open. Everything was manual. For the first months not even a tractor was available to move an aircraft. When it needed refueling 4-gallon cans were humped from the petrol-dump.
No matter how heavy the rain, how deep the snow or the mud, the job had to be done. As we were all volunteers, any moans would be met with “Shouldn’t have joined then”. After a few weeks, we were issued with gumboots, leather jerkins, gloves and balaclavas, usually knitted on a “One size fits all” basis, but very welcome all the same to face the severe weather conditions.
On arrival at the aerodrome, the first job would be to remove the camouflaged canvas shroud covering the aircraft, followed by the Daily Inspection. The engine would then be started, tested and checked for leakages and malfunctions after which the paperwork had to be completed. A fitter and a rigger, for engine and airframe respectively, were allotted to each aircraft. One great frustration, when working in the extreme cold, was to drop a small nut or bolt through frozen fingers. Often, much time would be wasted searching through the grass or mud for the missing item. Mud was a terrible problem. Boots carried it into the aircraft, and the only way to remove it was with water and a rag.
One day it was decided by the Air Ministry to use the sturdy Battle as a dive-bomber following the successful use by the Luftwaffe of Stuka’s in Poland. But after a few trials the dive-bombing experiment was over. The engine was being forced to over-rev to such an extent they had to be sent to workshops in England for overhaul.
Without a mobile crane an engine was replaced as follows. Three stout poles were lashed together at one end and then erected in wigwam style on top of the aircraft. The engine would then be hoisted with a block and tackle. Next, the aircraft was pushed out of the way to make room for a trailer with an empty engine-stand to receive the old engine. Installing a new engine was carried out in the reverse order. In order to start the engine, the pilot or fitter occupied the cockpit. The rigger had to do the donkey-work. Just below the exhausts he had to wind the starting-handle to provide the cylinders with the needed compression. Next, fuel was injected, “contact” would be called for the ignition to be switched on and with a splutter, sparks and a thick cloud of exhaust fumes the engine would burst into life. The rigger had to escape as quickly as possible from the now speeding prop. His next job was to lie across the tail plane in order to offer sufficient counterweight. At an increased engine power the aircraft tended to incline causing the prop to plough into the ground. In the almost Arctic winter conditions the “rope and bag” method was used to get the engines started.
All this aerodrome consisted of was a farmer’s large field. A great deal of hard work had been done in an attempt to camouflage the aeroplanes by chopping down trees. Our “sister” squadron, No.142 occupied the west side of the drome. Officers and aircrew had ridge tents. Suitably-adapted trailers contained the Orderly Office and spare parts.
Dug-outs with timber roofs quickly developed into accommodation for the ground crew. Fireplaces were built when it got colder. Smoke from the fire was always a problem because ventilation was never perfect in these places.
Once every ten days we were called for guard duty at the drome. The reward was a day off which would be spent to catch the bus to Reims for a bath, a good meal, shopping, perhaps the cinema and of course to have a drink in one of the many cafés. Orders had been given that we were not to be served with anything stronger than beer. One of our favourites was Ratafia, a liqueur champagne.
This small village became our home on 8th December 1939. I think it became necessary because a fighter squadron was needed at Berry. Amifontaine had nothing more to offer than two cafés and a Goulet-Turpin store. The Village Hall had doubled as a cinema.
Personal hygiene posed very difficult choices: strip off in a very cold room and wash in freezing well-water or delay until the chance of a luxurious bath at Reims. By March we had a bath-house with boiling water, a luxury rationed to once a week. Apart from guard duties and the occasional day off, our daily routine was as regular as clockwork.
Up at 06:15, breakfast between 07:15 and 08:00, then assemble in the Square for Daily Routine Orders and transport to the aerodrome, return for dinner at 12:30, back at the drome from 13:30 until 16:00. After supper at 17:00 it was time to do a bit of cleaning up of shoes and uniform. Then the evening was our own until “Lights Out” at 22:30. Unless letters home had to be written or a good book finished, the Café de la Paix would be the next stop.
Christmas Day at Amifontaine! A working day unlike any others. When we returned for the Christmas Dinner at 12:45 we were dressed in our best blue. The salle de fêtes was packed with the whole squadron present for the only time the officers and NCO’s being there to perform the traditional Christmas duty of waiting on the other ranks.
Towards the end of January I was one of those chosen to go to Perpignan in the south of France to service our aircraft being flown there for bombing and gunnery practice. We travelled by train to the Mediterranean via Paris. We enjoyed the sunny weather, the good food and the wine. No guard duties were called for. The pace of life was very gentle.
My turn for home leave came in April. An evening train brought us to Boulogne for a night Channel crossing. Daylight at Dover and then on the train to London Victoria. A No.2 bus and I was home before midday in Hampstead.
In the meantime German forces had invaded Denmark and Norway. Having enjoyed my leave, I had no regrets about returning to France and the friends I had made in the squadron. There was a lovely warm French summer to look forward to, no more snow, ice and mud for a few months. It was going to be a hot summer indeed when France, Luxemburg and the Low Countries would be invaded on 10th May.
HET 12DE SQUADRON GAAT TEN OORLOG
At 6pm I and eleven others plus a Corporal i/c Guard reported to the aerodrome. The next morning, at 6am when we were preparing to return to the village Heinkels 111 were flying low overhead. We quite happily and pointlessly fired our rifles. A World War I veteran using a machine-gun succeeded in bringing down one of the attackers which crashed some distance away. We were lucky that our airfield wasn’t bombed. Obviously it had no visible runway and no buildings or tents. We were not bothered again by enemy bombing until five weeks later.
After a quick breakfast we got back to the aerodrome. Excitement prevailed, there was no panic. It was 4:25 pm before 12 Squadron received its orders and four crews were briefed to attack enemy columns on the Luxemburg-Junglister road at low-level. Only one returned to base.
Saturday 11th May: We stood by at the aerodrome at various states of readiness, but no call came for action.
Sunday 12th May: At 07:00 hours the Squadron received the order to destroy the Albert Canal bridges at Veldwezelt and Vroenhoven. Ten Hurricanes of No.1 Squadron would escort the bombers. They bravely fought against overpowering numbers of Messerschmidts. ‘A’ flight led by Flying Officer Thomas attacked from 9,000 feet whereas Flying Officer Garland led ‘B’ flight at low level. Unfortunately, the Germans had surrounded the bridges with hundreds of anti-aircraft guns. Five out of five aircraft were lost.
Monday 13th May: The squadron was on standby from dawn to dusk.
Tuesday 14th May: All ten AASF Squadrons were ordered to halt the German advance. It turned out to be a disaster. No higher rate of loss of crews and material had been experienced before. Five No.12 aircraft took off. The target was only fifty miles away. Four of the five were lost. Obviously, a second mission was out of the question.
We heard bomb explosions no more than 20 miles away. The flow of refugees passing the aerodrome had increased to an unbroken flood. When word got around that we also were packing up the village itself was being evacuated as well.
At night lorries took us to our new destination. No-one of us had the slightest idea where we would arrive until we came in Echemines. This little village must have contained no more than about a dozen buildings, cottages and farms. The aerodrome was a huge field surrounded not by trees, but by scrub and bushes, in which were erected some tents for officers and ground crews. There was no shop or café. One day I was summoned to an officer whose job it was to censor all out-going mail. Apparently I had given too many details about the living conditions of the squadron and I was asked to rewrite the letter.
The bombers carried out night operations. With nothing to help navigation except a compass locating and attacking a target was an almost impossible challenge. On 2nd June we were to move again, further west to the village of Sougé leaving behind 12 aircraft and a rear party to service them, with the others being flown to the new base.
We enjoyed the beautiful June weather and the fact that we could swim in the river Loir which flowed alongside the aerodrome. Unabashed nude figures could be seen there at all times of the day. Our accomodation in the village was in a loft and there was plenty to eat and drink in the local cafés. The number of aircraft had been reduced drastically and the life of our Battles due to losses was rather short. During a night attack ‘my’ L5383 had been forced to land at a French Air Force base at Chaumont and its engine could not be started the next morning so I was flown there with my toolkit to recover it.
On 14th June I was detailed to accompany two others and a driver to fetch petrol from a dump somewhere in a forest. I think I was given this job because I spoke a few words of French. On the main Paris-Bordeaux road there was a constant stream of refugees in cars, lorries and vans, most of them with mattresses on the roof in the belief that they would afford protection against bullets if attacked from the air. At one small town, we stopped for refreshment at a café. I managed to buy a very nice watch cheaply from a jeweller who was selling off all he could before leaving. On return to Sougé, however, we learnt that the aerodrome had been heavily bombed, several of our planes being destroyed, with casualties.
How grateful I was to friends who had kindly packed up my kit in my absence as the lorries had been loaded for an immediate move. Our convoy of about twenty vehicles set off at midnight. Rumour had it that we were on our way to a new aerodrome close to Rennes.
A beautiful morning dawned and as we lay comfortably on our baggage we enjoyed the scenery such as fairy-tale castles on hilltops. About midday, a dispatch rider raced past us and the convoy was halted. We could see in the distance the C.O. reading the message the rider had brought. We passed through Rennes and left it further and further behind, so it became obvious that new instructions must have been received. We had halted just outside Brest for the night. After marching through the city to the docks at first light, joining hundreds of others RAF and Army, we boarded a cross-Channel ship.
At about 11:00 hours a single Heinkel 111 flew over, dropping mines in the entrance to the harbour. At about 18:00 hours steam was raised and by sunset we were well clear of Brest, heading north through open sea. It was a long time since we had eaten, we were quite exhausted, we were in danger of being torpedoed at any moment, but we were on our way home. On the morning of the 17th June our ship reached Plymouth.
We were marched to the Citadel and supplied with tea and biscuits. Another march, this time to the station where we got stamped postcards to send home. A train took us towards destination unknown. It was nearly dark before we finished up at RAF Locking, where we enjoyed our first cooked meal for several days, served by WAAF maitresses, a novelty to us. Next day, we completed our journey to RAF Finningley and were granted a short home leave. On 3rd July we became with our “sister” Squadron, No.142, the first occupants of RAF Binbrook and we continued the war. Another chapter in my life began.