Chapter 16

But not all was sweetness and gladness; there were sad moments as well. By midsummer, fine though it was, the clouds of war were definitely gathering. The world knew that in Germany, those of the Jewish faith were in some measure persecuted, but not yet to the extent of later years. Some were able to leave the country, and each time we left Frankfurt for London there would be scenes of tearful farewell. For they and those left behind knew that it was probably farewell for ever. Whether any of the other crew members realised this I do not know, but to me it was only too evident. And evidence there was. When I first started to fly across Germany in l936, the magnificent new autobahns were the pride of Nazi progress, although it was generally assumed that the prime purpose was military. Be that as it may, one could see some of these wide roads heading away to Austria that were completed, and in use up to a certain point, but after that the work had not been finished but tailed off, finally becoming merely staked-out surveyors tracks. Just as if work had stopped for the holidays. Now, those roads were completed and in use right into and across Austria, again with an incomplete ending and heading towards Hungary. Where after that, I thought.

Handley Page HP42 Helena at Croydon 1932

Handley Page HP42 Helena at Croydon 1932

Another pointer was the growing number of unlisted radio beacons that could only be for the Luftwaffe. One very powerful station was called Wolf. Where it was I did not know. Perhaps they bad a premonition that one day Hitler would require his Wolf's Lair or Last Redoubt when the inevitable defeat faced him. The number of prohibited areas over which we could not fly also increased significantly. These were not always easy to circumnavigate, especially when in or over the clouds, for we did not have the really precise navigational aids of later years. By July, British airliners had to listen every half hour on shortwaves in case a recall message was sent.

The unfortunate thing was that we could rarely hear Croydon, so at my suggestion, the powerful station for ships at Portishead was used. Although no message was ever sent, or at least never received by me, this facility gave sterling service during the following war years.

What the atmosphere inside Germany was I like I did not know, for during this period I never stayed overnight there. In Buda, the English community naturally became a little tensed up, but most of them thought that Chamberlain could do no wrong, and it was not until the very last that self-preservation steps seemed to be thought of. By this time, it was obvious that something would snap, and when we arrived there on Friday 25th July, things were really serious. The next morning, there was some anxiety that if we left on schedule, we would be refused petrol at Frankfurt . There was talk that we may have to go eastwards to Sofia and Greece, maps having already been provided for such an eventuality. Some months later, I was told that unknown to anyone except Captains, a couple of hundred pounds in sterling notes was hidden away behind the cockpit panels so that we could pay cash for petrol if something like this did occur. However, the German airline Lufthansa had already passed through on its way to Bucharest, so it was reckoned that as they would expect petrol for their own return home, the taps would not be turned off in Germany for us.

On arrival at Frankfurt we found that overnight the Luftwaffe had taken control of the airport, not that they weren't before I presume, for some officials seemed merely to have changed uniform. I did notice that one or two young airmen gave us foreigners a somewhat hard look, but whether that was from an ideological hatred, or just because they had never seen any before, I didn't ask. Naturally, there was a certain amount of flapping around, especially when our outbound flight arrived. None of the crew felt happy at proceeding any further, especially the captain, a Canadian named Middleton, always known as Middleditch. He said that as a non-European, he felt that it was none of his business. Alan Wood, who was in the crew, recounted how he was on one telephone to the manager at Buda who was urging Come on !, possibly as he and his German born wife would have a means of escape eastwards, while Middleditch was on another telephone back to Heston asking about returning. Which they did. We left first with a full load of passengers, and our station engineer sitting on a kitchen chair in the aisle, followed soon afterwards by Middleditch and his full load plus the one other Company staff member.

All other services through Germany were also cancelled, and the crew placed on stand-by at base. This meant that the tarmac was full of parked aircraft, while the crew duty rooms were much overcrowded. Needless to say, the canteen did a roaring trade and skill at darts was much to the fore. One day we were told that the stand-by duty would become a 24 hour one, and so there was much seeking for a good place to sleep under the table. Fortunately this prospect was cancelled. As always, rumour, speculation and wild stories abounded. There was one, mentioned in the newspapers, of a mysterious stranger arriving at Croydon, and there were others like it. Certainly I saw a German Lufthansa Junkers at the far side of Heston aerodrome. I cannot pinpoint the day, maybe it was the Wednesday night, maybe when we were to do the all night duty, maybe it was the arrival of yet another mysterious stranger. However, one of our wags decided to do something about it and spread the story that the Junkers had brought Himself, as there was a bit of belief that the Fat Man was not quite so warlike as his Boss. The idea was to see if the story would believed, and how soon it would be in circulation. It was believed, and came back to him in not more than an hour. On Wednesday night, our nightmail left for Berlin, but escaped from there the next (but that is a story in itself).

In the hangars during this period, frantic packing had been taking place, and great boxes of stores and spares made ready. On Friday morning came the news of the bombing of Warsaw, and evacuation plans were put into effect. Apparently we were to move to Whitchurch aerodrome near Bristol, and loading of the crates on to lorries was begun; aircraft were filled with staff and despatched westwards. All except Slosher and Co., who were ordered to take a small RAF Signals contingent to Paris, but to land at Shoreham near Brighton for a control check before crossing the Channel. While on the ground there, the contingent O/C, a Squadron-leader, looked at our Lockheed, asked what type it was, and then commented I expect that one of this size will have brakes. At that time, my opinion of our armed forces was somewhat low, but this was really too much. To be fair, he was probably a Great War reservist called back into uniform. When we got away, the ether was its usual great cacophony of sound: Croydon bellowing away at some KLM aircraft, Amsterdam and Brussels in some check up on an aircraft's height, and French stations busy with several nationalities at once. With so much noise as always, it was difficult to chip in with the crossing-the-coast signal.

But when we took off from Le Bourget on our return flight, there was a distinct air of quietness, not so much chatter by far, and it seemed to be dying out as the minutes passed. Then Amsterdam came up with an ALL STATIONS call, followed by a long message in Dutch, then in German, French, and finally in English. The frontiers of Holland are closed. No aircraft may cross. Anyone attempting to do so will be attacked. Then he fell silent. Quickly, Brussels sent a similar message and he too went silent. This was followed by Paris and Bordeaux, for by this time, the more distant stations were not being drowned out as they usually were. Then Hanover, Cologne, Bremen and other stations in Germany went through the same motions and stopped. Finally, I could hear the far, faint voice of Copenhagen, never before heard at this distance, for it was all so quiet. He did his stuff, had a quick word with Malmo in Sweden, and the air was quite still. Not a sound could be heard. To misquote Sir Edward Grey in I9I4: The lamps are going out all over Europe.... Indeed they were, and a chill finger ran up my spine. This was it! WAR.

I could see it all. Waves of bombers approaching. Clouds of fighters ascending. Hordes of trigger happy gunners below. And believe me, at that moment, mid-channel at I2,000 feet and not a cloud in the sky seemed a particularly stupid place to be.

The sequel was a bit of an anti-climax. We returned to Heston, stayed the night, flew to Bristol the next morning, were given billets, and on Sunday heard the Prime Minister announce that we were at war. I had brought with me in my suitcase the remains of a bottle of Swedish Schnapps, and a full bottle of 1911 Tokay. After hearing the announcement and waiting for the bombing to commence, Nigel Pelly, Chamberlain's first pilot, a Miss Evans, one of our typists, and myself, sat in Nigel's car and drank the Schnapps. Very appropriate, I thought. The Tokay, I said, I'll save for the victory party.

And believe it or not, I did.

One last thing. That afternoon, instead of listening to a patriotic speech from some senior manager or other, we Radio Officers held a Trades Union meeting!