For me, it had been a great transition from the trawling life to one where I frequented quite high class hotels, and ate in cosmopolitan restaurants throughout Europe. To say nothing of the glamour! Before this, apart from one night in Aberdeen and a trip on the Flying Scotsman at the expense of my employer, I had only stayed in somewhat dingy hotels (all I could afford) and the best I had done in the eating out line was Lyons Corner House in the Strand. Foreign travel was not so widespread in those days, and there seemed to be just a little pretentiousness about it by the lucky ones. But in our job we took it as a matter of course, an everyday occurrence, which it was, although we were not above ensuring that a label was stuck on to our suitcases at every hotel. At least they looked well on the 4.I5 from Kings Cross. After the first euphoria of my new existence, I began to recall the words of the Hull Branch Secretary, The boys down at Croydon are getting a little restless. Although the trawling life had been by some standards a little rough, it was all fairly matey. There was of course the odd supervisory employee, a certain cashier for example, who tended to be rather brusque at times, even if not quite obnoxious. This was often put down to too regular attendance at church instead of the pub. In reality, apart from purely personality characteristics, some of it was due to the fact that he was in regular employment while the rest of us were in truth only casual labour. The situation was traditional, but it was not helped by the fact of the Great Depression. With half the ships laid up, one didn't have much choice. At sea, the skipper was God; that was a necessity of the seafaring existence, but the rest were Tom, Dick and Harry, irrespective of whether they were the second-in-command in charge of the engines, or the deckie learner. And once ashore, God became Joe.
Now I was experiencing changes. In financial terms I was little better off. Before, I had been paid three pounds a week with free food, rough as it may have been. Now, I was earning effectively four pounds ten shillings a week, but had to pay for fulltime digs. Of course, the married ones were in a more difficult position, and even I sent home a weekly allowance to my parents. Fortunately we were able to make up a little by judicious economising on the away-from-base allowance. A fourpenny sandwich instead of blowing the whole one and six on lunch helped.
In other matters as well, I was finding new differences and attitudes. The beginnings of flying had been military, and certain aspects of that mentality had remained in the higher management. In the early days, not unnaturally, pilots had been glamorised. Even at the present time, it could have been that the majority of people only thought of flying in terms of pilots and there was the odd one of these still around who took some things as his superior right. When wireless come into aviation, again not unnaturally, the first operators came from the Air Force. But pilots were Officers, and they were Other Ranks. When expansion came along, many operators came from the Merchant Service, and they did not exactly take kindly to these divisions. In other respects, particularly with employee contacts, Imperial Airways were somewhat authoritative, as I had found out when interviewed by Sir Tom. The company had been forced to accept collective trades union representation for the engineers in the hangars at Croydon, but it was not a practice they wanted elsewhere, and actively opposed such action.
All staff in contact with passengers wore the same style uniform, although the quality of the cloth varied. Pilots had a nice smooth barathea, with gold rings of rank and a full-wing brevet, while the other half of the crew, ourselves, had to be content with rough old serge, a single blue cloth band round the sleeve and no brevet. The blue denoted Engineering Branch, to which for some reason we were attached. Those of us who had come from the sea had not been previously aware of all these attitudes and problems. Indeed, we were only too happy to get away and settle ashore. The true Merchant Service types, having been ship's officers, particularly did not like the downgrading they found. For myself, although not having been concerned with such matters, I also thought it all a little out of place.
So it was about these matters that the boys were unhappy. Those who were members of the AWCT had started an informal group and pressed non-members to join. Presumably someone was in contact with the Head Office. The next step was to seek collective negotiating rights, but Imperial would have none of it. Eventually, the Company said that they would speak to a delegation, or as we saw it, tell us what to do. For some reason, probably because I had shouted the odds a little at our group meetings, I found myself on this; in fact, as the spokesman. Now I had absolutely no experience of this sort of thing, as our delegation presented itself at the office of Mr Robson, which was the inner sanctum of Mr Chopper's office. Mr Robson was his boss, and seemed to be called the Operations Manager. On our arrival, he immediately began to talk about our grievances, but we insisted that no discussions could take place unless a representative of our Association was present. This was refused, .but we persisted with some emphasis. I am told that I thumped the table a little. So after a short while, we left. About half an hour later, over a cup of tea in the canteen, news reached me that Robson had declared Get that man out of the country at once ... ... me!
A day or so later I was called to the Flying Staff Manager's office, where Sir Tom passed over a large document and told me to sign it. When I enquired what it was (as if I didn't know), he said that it was merely the contract of service all staff were required to sign. This I knew to be untrue. In fact, it was an Overseas Contract for, as far as I can remember, two years and nine months service, with three months home leave at the end, for six pounds five shillings per week. When I protested, somewhat with tongue in cheek that I wanted time to read it, he said quite off-handedly something about the fact that it didn't matter, it was all standard. Just sign. He repeated several times that he didn't know to where I would be sent, it wasn't any concern of his, Hatchett was the man. Just sign, it's only a formality. Then I said that I wanted to show it to my solicitor (I hadn't got one). But there is nothing he can do about it, it's all standard. was the response. However, I was allowed to depart, clutching a copy in order to read it over.
The next morning, I received a letter from another department stating that they had been informed by the Flying Staff Manager that I was being posted to Egypt, and would require my passport for visa purposes. So much for the fact that he didn't know! It now being officially settled that I was going overseas, I was granted a few days departure leave, but first had to be inoculated against yellow fever. This, at that time, was a general move in readiness for the introduction of the new flying boats. The inoculation was to be at the Welcome Foundation in Euston Road, which suited me fine as I could then catch the train home from nearby Kings Cross. At the Institute, I was weighed and given a jab on either side of the stomach with something about the size of a horse syringe, each of which, in front of my very eyes, raised a lump as big as a large marble. Then I was told to come back in three hours time, which meant that I could not catch the one-thirty train. So I had to kill time in a convenient cinema. Returning to the Institute, I was given a further jab, this time only a small one in the arm, and instructed to come back yet again in about three weeks. The train I finally caught was the four o'clock, the daily through service to Grimsby, no changing required. Which was very fortunate for me. For soon I began to experience spasmodic cramps across my stomach which became quite severe, and by the end of the journey I was almost doubled up. Normally I would walk home from the station, it was not a great distance, but if carrying a case would take a bus that dropped me about a hundred yards from home. But this time I could not face that hundred yards walk, and so took an alternative route by tramcar, which involved two separate trips right round the town, but dropped me right at my door. Needless to say, my arrival almost doubled up with pain caused a certain amount of consternation, but I started to recover in the morning and was soon standing up straight again. Or almost.
Later I heard the story of the inoculations. Apparently, it was all a new protection against the deadly yellow fever and the amount of the injection depended upon one's weight. To most of us it had been quite painful, although not all in the same manner as me. One fellow, somewhat on the large size, had no less than three lumps raised on his stomach. Another, waiting his turn in the anteroom, was horrified to see his friend carried out on a stretcher. On my return visit to the Institute, I was tested and then drained of a pint of blood, for which, to my surprise, I was presented with three pounds. All this in the cause of medical science, as the treatment was so new that each injection had to be distilled from someone already 'infected' with the fever. However, a few years later, I was grateful for the advance in science when I lived in the danger areas.
This business being over, I was again summoned to the Presence. In the intervening times, I had been making loud noises that I wasn't going to Egypt for six quid a week. So when Sir Tom told me to sign, I refused. He then peremptorily told me to Get Out Of My Office. I wondered at the time why be had been quite so put out about it, but later found that I was the third that very morning to refuse. A week later I received a letter to say that my services were no longer required in Europe. Funnily enough, the other two who refused that day did not receive one, nor did they go overseas. Maybe it was because they could not have been described as agitators.
So ended another phase of my life! However, having anticipated this state of affairs, I had already taken suitable steps by contacting another airline, British Airways Ltd, at the new airport of Gatwick, about 20 miles southwards on the main railway line to Brighton. This airport, located next to the racecourse of the same name, had only been opened as such for about six months, and one of its features was that it had its own railway station connected by an underground tunnel to the circular terminal building. This was of an imaginative design, and even had telescopic canopies that were run out to the aircraft doors to protect passengers from the elements. The airline itself had experienced a disastrous summer trying to operated an all weather night mail service to Hanover, and had lost three aircraft. When I arrived, some German Junker 52 aircraft had just been acquired, the all metal ones that looked as if they were made of corrugated iron. I was pleased to meet up with another wireless operator I had known at Hull, while another came from a village near my own home.
Life went on as before, flying the same old inadequate aircraft to Paris and now also to Amsterdam, Hamburg, Copenhagen and on to Malmo in Sweden. The only difference was that I went by train for duty instead of walking. Within a few weeks, the new airfield was bogged down by mud and we operated out of Croydon. So once again I could walk. Then quite of the blue, I received a letter from a man I had known in Grimsby who now worked for a company at lford in Essex, that made the echo sounding apparatus. He wanted an assistant and thought that I would be a suitable type. Accepting his offer, I gave up aviation and moved out into the sticks. But the job turned out to he boring, and in any case, soon faded out. However, I was lucky enough to be taken back by British Airways, now permanently ensconced at Croydon, and also having recently taken delivery of a number of Lockheed I0a aeroplanes. These were all metal monoplanes, equipped for all weather flying, and carrying about ten passengers. Life was looking up, for these were the very latest in aircraft. Also my current girlfriend, who had worked in Brighton, now worked in Croydon!
With the advent of summer, the route to Sweden had been extended to Stockholm where a new airport had been blasted out of the rock, which meant it had solid runways, unlike our own grass aerodromes. At least it could not get bogged down with mud, but when the winter came, it became bogged down with snow! Stockholm is a city built on many islands and for me, it remains my favourite, after Budapest of course. During that summer I made about eighteen trips there, including one or two weekends, and with the long daylight evenings, got to know it quite well. We could amble down to the waterfront to visit the open air parks of Skansen and Djurgerden, dally in the midnight sun at some open air cafe, or listen to the band in the park near our hotel. At weekends, we could take the train to the Baltic swimming beaches at Saltsjsbaden, which were, to say the least, superior to the pool near Croydon airport. There were no difficulties in communication, however much I tried to practice my Swedish, for everyone spoke English, usually very well and in any case, were more than eager to practice rather than listen to me.
But with the winter snow problems, it was back to Malmo until the spring. By Stockholm standards, Malmo was just a some what dull provincial town; not that Stockholm itself exactly sparkled with gaiety. However, just across the Sound was Copenhagen. And Copenhagen was quite a place! As I rather liked the Swedish way of life, I volunteered to do as many winter trips as possible, even weekends. On those, we would take the ferry boat across to Copenhagen, returning on Monday morning, as departure wasn't until about eleven thirty. The pay-off came in the spring, when trips to the Venice of the North were in demand, for then I claimed that as I had done the unpopular ones, I should have the same proportion of the popular one. And to some extent, I got away with it.
Going to a foreign town frequently and becoming a part of it was a fascinating experience. Although to some extent I had done this at Budapest, there was always the ever present language difficulty. Now it was much better, for on the whole I could understand what was going on; I could ride like a local on the buses, read the headlines in the newspapers, know what was happening, what was showing at the cinemas. Ever since those days, I have always tried to move around any foreign place under my own steam. So many people simply call a taxi. It is surprising how much one can learn and get into the spirit of a place by simply observing fellow travellers on a bus or train. And many are the interesting conversations I have got into using broken English.
In this connection we were in luck as the Swedish hotel staff went on strike for a week or two. This meant that we had to go to Copenhagen every time, and at the firm's expense to boot. So one had to watch the clock after arrival and decide if there was enough time to dash down the railway sidings and catch the early train ferry. Otherwise it was quite a wait for the main passenger boat. Copenhagen seemed to be pronounced something like Shobenhamm and there was something about the place that I never sorted out. It did not seem to matter what time of the day or night that you entered an restaurant; there would always be a group of big fat Danes eating an enormous meal - I never did decide what the conventional meal times were. Much more than the Swedish cities, whose evening entertainments were quite sedate, Copenhagen had sparkling nightlife, probably because there were real bars. In Sweden there were severe limits on what one could drink in public, and then only with a meal. To be honest about it, one could easily get into trouble in Copenhagen. For example, fights at night spots were not unknown, and I nearly got into one myself. I was dancing with a girl and some fellow peered into my face and called me a Big Bastard. One this occasion it developed into nothing, as the poor fellow had been told that this expression was a term of good fellowship. Doubtless some seafarer had done this, as it was considered to be a good joke by such characters.
In the eating sphere in those parts, I did learn one useful lesson, and that was how to tackle that great Swedish cold table, the Smorgasbord The innocents, new crew members for instance, would take one look at this vast spread and just wade in, piling their plates high with every variety of food. Having got through it, they either felt sick or could not eat another thing. They did not know that there was a main dish to follow. The art of it was to start with the fish, cold smoked salmon or anchovies. Then go on to the smoked meat, reindeer usually, but also ham, then try the chicken and beef, taking all the time smallish portions of the many salads. After that you were in a state to tackle the main course. The size of the eater wasn't always the criterion. I remember one Sunday lunch when the pilot and I had a quiet beer before starting. At the same time, a rather large family party also started operations. We two had about three modest helpings, then a glass of beer, then the main course and coffee to finish. As time was of no object and there being nothing else to do, we had a very leisurely time of it. When we had finished, one of the party, a quite thin young woman, was still plodding round the table. But to be fair, I do not think that she went on to the main course. Two solid hours of eating seemed to have been enough.
Aviation being what it was, in my new Company there were of course quite a few characters. Perhaps the best known was David Prowse, a tallish fellow who sported a large and genuine black RAF moustache. He was a very fine pilot and had been a cadet at Cranwell. But despite this he took real pride in always being scruffy in appearance, and professed a complete disregard of rank. At least military rank, for he never stepped out of line within the Company. Many were the stories told about him, and in particular the expressions he used. When told of the arrival of someone's new baby, he would demand Bloke or wizard woman ? On one occasion when flying with him, we landed at Paris in particularly bad weather conditions, low cloud and very poor visibility on the ground. As we touched down he called out Got away with it again! So I replied But I wasn't half frightened. But not as frightened as me. How do you know ? It's impossible to be as frightened as I was. And he was the driver airframe. On another occasion during my first winter on the Scandinavian route, we left Hamburg for Amsterdam with a very poor landing forecast. The actual weather conditions there worsened, but I kept my eye on those at Bremen as a funk hole. We pressed on, and finally given a cloud base of less than I00 feet (not much more than rooftop height), we made one of our spectacular QDM approaches until told Motors Heard. At this, David did what was known as a splitarse turn to the right, my side, calling out Can you see the ground ? I could, clearly. Not only the ground, but the blades of grass whistling past our lower wing tip. All went well, we landed safely and started to taxi towards the terminal. Unfortunately, the ground was bogged down, and soon we stuck fast. Gunning the engines had no effect, and so I had to get out and push. The aircraft becoming free, David just continued the taxi to the concrete, leaving me to plod my way through the rather thick mud. Not a particularly exciting story, but there was more to it.
On the ground was the northbound service waiting for our arrival before being given permission to proceed. The captain was a Canadian, Jimmy Rood, who was asked by the control tower to order or advise David to divert. Jimmy said that he had no power to do that, but in any case, David would know what he was doing. So the station engineer, John Sutcliffe, was asked to go up to the tower. What for ?. To be a witness at the inquest. Sometime later, I learned the whole story. David had lost his passport and daren't stop anywhere in Germany as the Glestapo would want to see it. And they could be rather nasty customers.
During this period, two things had happened to me personally. From reading the New Statesman and Nation, as it then was, my outlook on what is known as politics veered from one of no interest at all, to that of the Left Book Club, which I joined. In the latter, I become somewhat involved; I went to discussion groups, attended meetings and rallies, went on protest marches against the Government, and from a reasonably safe vantage point, shouted abuse at Mosley and his Fascists. The other was that I became a Trades Union Leader. Well not exactly a Leader, but at least I was on the Executive Committee of one. As the two major airlines, Imperial and British Airways were both at Croydon, we operators were in a position to join forces in the art of grumbling about our grievances. Although Imperial's flying boat operations were building up at Southampton, the boys there were not able to have the same cohesion as we had, and so it fell to our lot to do the work. About this time too, the pilots started a similar organisation, and there was something of a scandal when six were dismissed by Imperials. This led to a Governmental Committee of Enquiry that eventually produced a critical report, particularly on the staff relations of Imperials. This was the Cadman report of I938. As our own Association had a growing membership in the aeronautical field, it was decided that a special seat on the Executive Committee should be given to the Aircraft Section. For reasons best known to others, that job fell to me. So I became a Leader!
Our demands were for a consolidation of pay with an incremental scale, plus an actual flying allowance. We thought of one based on distance flown rather than time, as with the introduction of faster aeroplanes, we should lose out as airbourne time would be shorter. In addition, we wanted to come into line with our seagoing colleagues, who had changed their title to match their status on the ship and became Radio Officers. The Association also now called itself the Radio Officers Union. Imperials would have none of this. They wouldn't even recognise the Union as a negotiating body. However British Airways, under their managing Director, Major McCrindle, appeared to be a much conciliatory organisation. Some talks had taken place, but there was no positive outcome, so at Croydon we decided that if the next meeting did not result in a favourable outcome, we would go on strike. I recall the planning meeting for this, held at the flat I then shared with my Lincolnshire friend, Alan Wood. After a consolidation of the then flying pay into our weekly wage, we wanted an increase of seven and six. We felt that we would accept five shillings if offered, but not half-a-crown. We also laid plans for the strike, and where we would station pickets around the airport in case of blacklegs; we also thought of banners to tell passengers that flying was unsafe without us. Eventually, through the good offices of Major McCrindle, a joint meeting with Imperials was arranged to be held in his office. Imperials were represented by Colonel Burchall, who was some form of General Manager. To his horror, Major McCrindle opened the meeting by saying that his Company would accept the Union's proposals in principle, although there were a few details to be settled. Colonel Burchall refused to take part in any discussion at all and soon departed, presumably to seek consolation from his own Board. For Imperials of course, the day was lost and soon a full agreement was signed. Our new flying pay, incidentally, was to be a penny a mile, just over thirty shillings for a return trip to Paris. But then whisky was only I2/6 a bottle, so it wasn't too bad! Oddly enough, on our side at the joint meeting, there were two ex-trawlermen, my old college chum Jimmy Jubb and myself. Maybe the winters at Bear Island had hardened us for the fray.
Imperials were still having trouble with their pilots, and had not yet resolved the question of representation. Following the Cadman Report, the Government announced that Imperials would continue to operate their Empire flying boat service, while the main European routes would he transferred to our own Company. However, Imperials would retain a strong interest in the Paris one as they had developed it for so long and had a good reputation on it. At least for passenger comfort, if not for efficient aeroplanes. We ourselves would also extend southwards, with the aim of starting a South Atlantic crossing service. Later, towards the end of the year, the Government changed its mind and said that the two Companies would be amalgamated into one publicly owned Corporation.
In the spring of I938, my Company had moved its operations to Heston on the west side of London, not far from Dick Turpin's Highwaymen's Heath, and where I again shared a flat with Alan Wood. Life went on as before, but the political tensions in Europe were rising. Germany had annexed Austria and to everyone else, except our own Government, the writing was on the wall. Hitler wanted the world, and one day there would be war. By midsummer the tensions reached a new height with Hitler putting pressure on Czechoslovakia. Early in September, a crew comprising Captain Nigel Pelly, and Radio Officer Alf Woodall, my old trawlering friend from Hull, were placed on stand-by duty for an unknown flight. The duty was soon turned into a night and day one, with the pair sleeping at the Aeroclub on the airfield. This went on for several days and at least once, Alan and I took Mrs Alf and Baby Pat to see Daddy so that he wouldn't forget what she looked like.
Then late in the evening of the fourteenth, the flight was announced. It was to go to Munich to take some passengers. Who they were was not known. Quite early the next morning, Nigel had sorted out the route, preparations were well advanced for departure, the passengers had arrived and baggage was being loaded when it was realised that Alf had not been told. Someone rushed to Alf's room to find him having a leisurely shave in preparation for yet another boring day. Rapidly gathering his things together and rushing out, he was unbelievingly bewildered at the story that they were taking the Prime Minister to see Hitler. They're all out there now. Chamberlain, Hore Belisha, John Simon, Halifax ... the lot.
Actually seeing them all there, Alf finally believed it. But at that moment, someone else rushed up, calling out Hold it a minute! Don't go yet - the King's going, and he's only just arrived ! 0h no cried Alf not HIM as well !. So off they went to see Hitler, followed by another hastily arranged aircraft, on which Alan went, carrying the support staff .
I did a return trip to Paris that afternoon, but was down at the airport the next day to see the arrival back of the ministerial party. Seeing all the well known politicians in the flesh was a bit of a disappointment. I don't know what I expected them to look like, tall and dignified perhaps, but they were somewhat shabbily unimpressive. My main interest was seeing a well known BBC radio reporter, Lionel Gamlin, in the flesh, actually talking into a live microphone on the air. However, one good thing came out of it all. Left around on the cabin floor after the arrival were a number of unused goodies from the picnic baskets provided for the passengers. These were promptly acquired and that evening, both Alan and myself had the luxury of smoking a full Corona Corona while watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs at the local cinema.
On the twenty second, another visit to Hitler was made, this time to Bad Godesburg, but I saw nothing of this as I was away on duty, a duty on which I walked on gold. By now, there was a certain amount of panic going on in Europe, particularly in the financial field. The day before the visit, I flew to Basle in Switzerland with a pilot named Tubby Fielden in a Dutch Fokker aeroplane. All the seats had been removed, leaving a wide expanse of floor space, as we were to bring a load of freight. At Basle, after the ritual cup of coffee and completing the formalities, we found that the floor was completely covered with lashed-down foot-long wooden boxes. Each box contained a gold ingot. Verily our route up to the cockpit was paved with gold. This was taken to Paris, where the aircraft was simply parked out on the tarmac overnight under the casual eye of a bored gendarme until off-loaded the next morning. There were no armed bandits around in those days!
On the twenty ninth, Mr. Chamberlain made his third and last visit to Hitler, again at Munich. The annual Beer Festival was in full swing, and the two crews, together with a French one that had flown Daladier here, were entertained by the German Foreign Ministry. Having thoroughly enjoyed themselves at the festival, and partaken fully, they arrived back at their hotel to find the street lined with sightseers, witnessing Der Furher on his way to the station with his fellow dictator, Mussolini, who was to depart by train. One crew member had to be restrained from emptying a chamber pot on to the passing cavalcade, and a lot of rude signs were thrown by the others. Not many can boast that they had given the fingers to both Hitler and Musso - and at the same time. Of course, they were leaning out of darkened windows at the time, several floor up.
That same morning I had gone on the normal service to Stockholm, landing at Hamburg on the way. Left Wing legend has it that this city had been a great centre of opposition to the Nazi ideology in the republican days, and in particular, one suburb was known as Red Altona. And Altona was near the airport. As around many other German towns, there were fairly large areas of what we would call allotments, many of which had a small cabin or chalet, presumably for weekend sojourns. We also believed, rightly or wrongly, that there was still a considerable amount of opposition to Hitler and all his works, although it was quiescent and underground. It was also supposed that the apparent resistance of England and France to the expansionist plans was welcomed by the underground opposition generally, as perhaps giving them moral support and maybe causing the fall of the Nazi state. Be that as it may, approaching the airport I noticed that there seemed to be an unusual number of blankets or sheets hanging out to dry at many of the cabins, and also at houses around that were clearly not occupied by the wealthy. And they were all red in colour! As we were about to take-off for Copenhagen, some of the staff of Lufthansa who were our handling agents shook us somewhat sadly by the hand, and one at least said Goodbye to the pilot, Lofty Whitehead. Why? we shall be back tomorrow, but the German made a slight gesture as much to say, Perhaps !
The next morning at Stockholm, we went out to the airport as normal and had breakfast on the balcony restaurant, that meal being later in Sweden than in England. But we sensed a very distinct air of coolness around us. Officials we knew by sight or personally, hurried past us without their usual greeting or even a glance in our direction. Wc could also see that other breakfasters had a somewhat frosty air about them. So I went to the bookstall, bought a Morgenbladett and read the appalling news - we had given away Czechoslovakia! Lofty wouldn't believe it, saying that I couldn't understand the Swedish, but I knew enough to read the headlines and finally convinced him. At Copenhagen there was the same air about. But at Hamburg, it was a different atmosphere. Distinctly different to that of the day before! Some officials seemed to have a triumphant look about them, although it was plain that the odd one was a little downcast. More strikingly, there were no red blankets blowing on the lines. Not one!