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At First Sight

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At First Sight
The Compass Bashers - W. M. “Wally” Hirons

My first posting as a newly-fledged Sergeant Compass Adjuster was on the 9  February 1944 to 627 Squadron, RAF Oakington, where I joined the Navigation Section with F/L (later S/Ldr) DeBoos in charge.

I was billeted with aircrew members of the Squadron, Johnny Upton, Jimmy Marshallsay, Nick Ranshaw, Sid Parlato and Di Thomas: I was somewhat overawed, having risen ovemight from ACH/GD to Sergeant and was delighted to be asked to sit in on a game of Solo as two of the bods had to go out. Several hours later, when the smoke had reached eye-level, they returned. “All back?” they were asked, “Yes, a good trip” was the reply. That was my introduction to operational aircrew and I’d thought they were having a night out in Cambridge.

On my first night out we all crammed into a tiny cinema in Cambridge to see Hedy Lamarr in “Extase” - considered very daring at the time as she ran naked through the woods and ended up in the arms of a forester - I can still remembers the cheers as the action unfolded!

We had three compass adjusters in 627, Maurice Porter, myself and one other whose name escapes me. In common with all ‘gash trades’ we were not exactly popular with Flight Sergeants Taylor and Garton, in charge of “A” and “B” Flights. To the regulars (especially ex btats from Halton) there were only two trades in the RAF - Fitters and Riggers and, to lose an aircraft for an hour or so at a time for compass swinging, meant nobody else could work on it and of course, one of the two tractors (plus driver if we were lucky) was also out of action.

On one occasion, an aircraft was urgently required so I towed it to the end of the runway to give it a quick four point swing. I climbed into the pilot’s seat to check the compasses only to find the Gyro compass was u/s. I nipped down to the rear hatch to check the master unit, opened up to find a fat backside protruding. A radar mechanic had decided to recheck his equipment without telling anyone and I had towed him to the other side of the airfield. He had been using the batteries and had drained them flat. I had to tow back to dispersal where Jock Taylor met me.”Well done Wally” says Jock “Sign the 700 and she’ll be off” - “She’s u/s” said I and, when I explained, Jock really excelled himself in vitriolic rhetoric concerning all gash tradesmen.

On another occasion F/Sgt Taylor was temporarily away from his Flight hut when the first WAAF driver to be attached to the Flights arrived. We suggested she sat by the door to await his return, the conversation moderating somewhat as we weren’t used to women on the Flights. In strode jock shouting his head off about some $&@!#% stupid electrician and he used the full range of his colourful language to describe him. We all tried to stem the tide but when jock was in full cry you couldn’t stop him. When he finally spotted the WAAF his face was a picture - and so was hers!

One of their biggest worries was when an aircraft had to be jacked up on trestles - they tended to tip over - a bit nose heavy I suppose. The operation was necessary sometimes, for certain types of compass adjustment, but the one who caused most alarm was the C O at the time, W/ C Curry when he organised parachute drill for the aircrews. He would sit on the wing with a stop-watch - the navigator had to open the inner door, jettison the outer door, sling out all loose impedimenta - maps, dividers, computers, etc., and, with parachute on chest, lower himself through the hatch, falling onto a mattress. Poor old Johnny Upton was a bit broad in the beam and always became jammed, to the annoyance of the CO and the desperation of his pilot!

Navigators had a hinged table which rested on their laps but some had their own boards made in the workshops with clips for pencils, rubbers etc. Nick Ranshaw in particular had a beauty which he grudgingly loaned to Johnny Upton as there was no table in his aircraft. On the return trip our own Ack Ack opened up and Johnny had to fire the colours of the day. In the confusion the pilot thought the aircraft had been hit as she didn’t answer the controls, so he ordered Johnny to bale out. Doors open, jettison equipment including Nick’s board, unplug intercom, reverse position, parachute on chest and Johnny gets stuck in the hatch! Meanwhile, pilot has gained control and is beckoning Johnny back in. They made an emergency landing somewhere in Kent I believe. Nick was most unimpressed and Johnny was strangely quiet for some time!

Accidents will happen and I felt sorry for the armourer who, posted to 627 from a ‘heavies’ squadron and, never having worked on a Mossie before, was order to do a quick Daily Inspection and sign the 700, as the CO wished to fly in about twenty minutes. The airman was trying to explain his lack of knowledge and was told to pull his finger out and get on with it. As the CO arrived, the armourer pressed the bomb release button hoping to hear the mechanism click - instead, he had pushed the jettison button and both wing tanks fell off, spewing petrol all over the dispersal. Black marks for all concerned!

I was detached to 139 Squadron, RAF Upwood for a short while - they were without a compass adjuster so I was to fill in until replacements arrived. The train stopped on the far side of the airfield and I began to walk round the perimeter track. Along came a tractor towing a Mossie so I jumped on. As we drove past a parked lorry there was an almighty bang and one of the wind tips was hanging off, the aircraft is off ops, and, that night, Group had demanded a maximum effort.

Next morning, I'm on a charge for “being the Senior NCO in charge on one of H.M. aircraft under tow, did cause serious damage etc., etc., through negligence”. I had not even booked in - wasn’t even on the strength, but I got a Severe Reprimand. Apparently there had been a series of damaged tailwheels etc., caused by the compass adjusters driving the tractors - they were probably all in the Glasshouse - hence my temporary posting. On my return to 627 S/Ldr DeBoos sent for me to see what it was all about - I explained and he threw the papers into the waste paper basket. The Aussie aircrew didn’t have any time for bull or bumph so my Severe Rep. never appeared on my documents!

Woodhall Spa with its Nissen huts proved to be a lot bleaker and isolated than comfort able pre-war Oakington. You certainly had to make your own entertainment. F/ Sgt Maxwell (Instruments) ran a dance band and several of us used to travel with them to local hotspots. One day I walked into the billet and ‘Maxi’ had drawn a series of chalk lines on the floor. He was pursing his lips and blowing grains of rice on to the lines. Thinking he was trying to ‘work his ticket’ I asked for an explanation and was told he was 'making a lip’ (he played the trumpet) and each line represented a note - if the rice pitched on the right line his lip was right. I’m still not convinced!

Other brief memories of Woodhall Spa - the carthorse which used to gallop across the field frightening the WAAF taking a short-cut to their quarters from the Sergeants Mess - especially at night. “Will you take me across?” they would ask - many a romance started that way! The aftemoon tea dances on Sundays at the Hotel down the road; the shared mess with 617 Squadron; the loss of Guy Gibson in a 627 Mossie; dinghy drill in a swimming pool in Lincoln - the bottom of the dinghy never got wet - we were all in the Saracens Head; lectures by ground crew NCOs to the aircrew - no captive audience here - it was really hard going trying to explain to F/ L Leo Devigne that it did the Gyro compass no good at all to slow roll all the way from the Wainfleet range to Woodhall Spa - his favourite method of flying; Sgt Andrews (Photographic) teaching some of us to play Bridge - we all used to carry a pack of cards instead of a Field Dressing in the pocket of our battledress; one sad note, a Mossie ‘pranging’ after coming out of R & I and on a test flight. The pilot had only returned from leave that day and didn’t make it.

Talking of R & I - of all the 627 characters Sgt ‘Geordie’ Clint stands out in my memory. A Reservist who served in WWI, Geordie, a brilliant engineer, ignored anyone of superior rank, even ordering engineering officers out of his R & I Hangar. Following one prang where the civilian DeHavilland personnel attached to 627 and an official from AID were examining the wreckage, one produced a pipe and said to Geordie “There’s your problem - bone dry - not a drop of oil has passed through that pipe” “Not surprised” said Geordie “It’s a ..... air hose”.

I remember Di Thomas describing one of the raids he flew on with pilot Sid Parlato. Apparently the marking wasn’t too accurate and well off target and 627 were told by the controller to retire as the heavies were coming in. Suddenly Sid pushed the nose down, dived between two factory chimneys and planted a TI on the roof, a perfect mark. I believe Di nearly had a heart attack or worse! Sid won a DFC and I think Di got a mention.

I went back to Woodhall Spa some time ago and saw the remains of the runways, the bomb dump and our living quarters, The RAF still use our hangar and the immediate vicinity but there is a private golf course on the Flight dispersal areas and the cry is of “F0re!” and not “NAAFI up!” as of yore.

Copyright 1943-2012 627 Squadron in Retirement or as credited