ONE MAN’S APPROACH TO WAR

John Peaty - Pilot
567, 287 Sqns


http://www.rafweb.org/Sqn286-290.htm

Well done! And congratulations on your great idea of producing a 'book' giving an outline of some of the activities of the members of the Surrey Branch of the Aircrew Association. I’m sure they won’t all be recollections of deeds in intrepid aviation, such as ‘There I was at 20,000 feet, upside down with nothing on the clock but the maker’s name’ and stuff like that. You certainly won’t get that sort of thing from me. What I did was pure Job Satisfaction.

I was a member of one of the greatest brotherhoods the world has ever known – the wartime Royal Air Force and in this brotherhood the significant and binding factor was Brotherly Love. It mattered not whether we were pilots, navigators, WOP/AGs, bomb aimers or whatever. Rank didn’t intrude either, it mattered not whether we were Group Captains, Sergeants or AC plonks on the ground. This brotherly love prevailed throughout the service and during the war regardless whether we were Fighter, Bomber, Coastal or whatever Command.

Of course we tended to pull each other legs, poking fun at other Commands. I was Fighter Command but if an outsider tried to cast adverse criticism over Bomber Command he would have been in danger of spending the rest of the war in hospital. Yes, the main poignant significance is Brotherly Love. Not an easy element to describe the words in fact it is almost impossible but I will try: an experience of Brotherly Love is far too deep to simplify in words. Here is just one small example.

I was flying a Hurricane at Peterhead, Scotland. Peterhead is the most easterly point of the British Isles. We would occasionally receive a signal from Bomber Command stating that a Lanc returning from a raid in Germany had signalled that they were ditching in the North Sea and had given a probable map reference. We would go out and search.

No easy matter this. Simple over land in daylight. We could have covered the whole area from Dover to Land's End in less time and found anything … landmarks to help us, but the North Sea – no landmarks. We used the Square Search method.

Hour after hour we practiced regardless of the weather, when we had nothing else to do, and we really got it down to a fine art to the extent that any dinghy in our large section of the North Sea would have been spotted. Mark you, my eyesight was somewhat better than it is now.

One particular occasion comes to mind. We diligently went through our routine for well over two hours but no joy. Then, as the weather was closing down and fuel was running low, we were called to base. My leader ordered us to ‘call it a day’, the kites were refuelled and parked in the usual fashion at our dispersal. The boys sped off to the mess for a pint of beer.

I could have done with one too but I couldn’t take my mind off that dinghy so I took off again and continued the search for three hours alone with the cloud base down to about 100 feet before finally calling it off. I would so gladly to have been able to finish that little story by saying that I did locate that dinghy but I cannot – I didn’t find it. In fact it wasn’t there.

I heard later that the Lanc in question didn’t ditch, the pilot had managed to limp home, reached the mainland and managed to land somewhere with all crew safe and well.

I suppose I could relate several stories which were particularly emotionally gruesome during the time I was a Spitfire pilot, but there was an old song years ago which mentioned that ‘It was love that makes the world go round’. There is some truth in that but I always preferred swapping the word ‘love’ with ‘laughter’. Many occasions during the war I laughed – these are not so funny when retold, things seldom are. However, here are a few – some were not even funny at the time.

I did my flying training in Oklahoma USA at a British Flying Training School at Miami, Oklahoma. Nearly came unstuck with that one too. On arriving at Moncton, Canada having crossed the Atlantic on a ship dodging U-Boats, etc. we were told that there were five British Flying Training Schools in the States and we could choose the one we wanted to go to. The names were called out, none interested me until Miami was mentioned. Thinking it was Miami, Florida I chose that one, only to discover when it was too late that it was Miami, Oklahoma but it turned out wonderfully well.

While there in Oklahoma, the stage show Oklahoma was running in New York (it didn’t reach London until 1951). Consequently on the radio every day, morning, noon and night they were playing Oklahoma music. So I came back to England having earned my Wings and having been promoted from Leading Aircraftsman to the giddy rank of Sergeant Pilot. I was full of Oklahoma music, but the folks back home knew nothing of this music.

I arrived home at Seven Kings, Ilford, Essex to my Mother and Father and sister on a Saturday. Sunday night at 1.45 a.m. there was an air raid. It was a bad one, all Mum and Dad’s windows blown out, front door blown through to the back garden, people killed, etc.

I got up and sorted my mother and father out and then I said to my mother that I should pop down the road to see how the neighbours were getting on.

I, like an idiot, waked down the road singing Oh, What a beautiful morning not quite as well as Gordon MacRae in the film but pretty healthily. It was far from being a beautiful morning. I heard an elderly lady say ‘That John Peaty, he is supposed to be a pilot, he should be up there shooting down the Germans. No, he is walking down the road singing ‘What a lovely day it is’ or something like that.

It was some years until they knew what I was singing. From Oklahoma back to Moncton, Canada – where my self-esteem ego was shattered. When in the States we were given RAF rates of pay. I received 10 Dollars a fortnight which was as useless as a sick headache in such a high spending place as the USA at the time. On pay day, one trip into the local town, visit to the Drug Store and a visit to the cinema and broke for two weeks. When we were joined by American cadets they were getting 200 Dollars a fortnight.

Most of my money was spent on gifts to take home to my family and friends (knickers for the girl next door, etc.). Did quite well really but I couldn’t think of what to buy my father. So I wrote to my mother, explained the situation and asked her ‘what does Dad really need’. She wrote back and said that he badly needed an alarm clock (couldn’t be bought in England, during the war). Right, that will be bought when I reach Canada again.

First job when reaching Moncton again. I strode into town bravely wearing my Sergeant’s uniform with wings up, of course. I’m sure the look on my young face was ‘Look out Adolf Hitler, you are in real trouble now ‘. Found a shop, the window was absolutely full of alarm clocks, marched straight in, a shop lady ‘Can I help you’. ‘Yes, I said, I want an alarm clock’.

She said ‘Sorry, can’t sell you one’. I said ‘Why, I have the money’. She said ‘they are reserved for war workers.’ I was shattered, I said ‘What do you think I am – in the Salvation Army’ and stormed out of the shop where I was followed by a woman customer. She asked me what the trouble was and re-entered the shop, bought me a clock. I still have that clock, doesn’t go now of course. I’m thinking of writing to the manufacturer to ask about the warranty.

When at Peterhead, Scotland Fighter Command was there to escort fleets of ships making their way, past Aberdeen to Murmansk and other places in Russia. Norway had fallen then and Jerry was sending over U-Boats and aircraft to knock the convoys to Hell. I think they gave up the idea on discovering Fighter Command was on the alert. However, the local people were Plymouth Brethren (a Christian sect). They were Conscientious Objectors so their boys tended to go into the Merchant Navy – non-combatant but doing their bit so … the local folk felt that we were helping their sons.

I was given a leave from there and given a food rationing card for my mother for her to use while staying with her. Food rationing was pretty severe in south east England so the card would have entitled her to perhaps an egg, half rasher of bacon and a piece of cheese the size of an Oxo cube. I took the card into a local shop at Peterhead and asked the fellow ‘What could you give me on that?’ He gave me four dozen eggs and a 16 pound ham. I was going to pay him, of course, but I said ‘I can’t take those’. He said ‘you are looking after our boys, it is about time we did something for you.’

He packed them into a large box and I made by may to Aberdeen, train to Kings Cross, then Liverpool Street, and train to Seven Kings – rang the bell, greeted by my Mother, love and kisses, etc. She said ‘What have you got in that box?’ I said ‘I’ll take it through to the kitchen and you can open it’. When saw the eggs she burst into tears. She hadn’t seen so many eggs since before the war. All the neighbours had an egg each, of course. I can’t remember what happened to the ham, but … war time was a great period for tear shedding. Tears of sorrow, tears of joy, Mother’s were tears of joy.

My first experience of the latter came on the occasion I first heard the expression, Brotherly love. That was way back when at ITW (Initial Training Wing) at Scarborough. Here we were taught all we needed to know before starting to fly, Navigation, Theory of Flight, Meteorology, armaments, signals, engines and the like. I was there for my first Christmas away from home. We could easily have been given leave but no, I would have given anything to have been at home. We did, at least, have the day off.

That Christmas morning I sat in our lounge room, in an armchair feeling really fed up and miserable. Then quite suddenly I felt ashamed of myself. I thought ‘You didn’t realise how lucky you are. I am in the RAF, it is warm, comfortable, and I am in England.’ I started to think of the countless thousands of blokes in the front line in France and other God forsaken places. They have the right to be fed up. Not me.

Then I started to wonder if there were some old boys having a miserable Christmas morning at the local civilian hospital. There’s one way to find out – go and see. I took myself off to the local hospital. Arriving there a Nursing Sister asked ‘Are you visiting someone?’ I said ‘Have you an old folks' ward, people who could do with a visitor?’

She took me to such a ward. It was one of those long rooms with about ten beds either side. There were some visitors but there was an old boy sitting up in bed, looking more than a little fed up. I said ‘Enjoying your Christmas?’ ‘No’ he said ‘I’m not, are you?’ Then I said ‘This is my first Christmas away from home.’ This produced his first laugh. He said ‘This is mine too, since the Great War’. He had been a Tommy Atkins in France in 1914. I said ‘What are you missing most this Christmas?’ He said ‘A pint of beer’. I said ‘You’ll have one tonight’. ‘Do you mean that’ said he. ‘If I say you will, you will.’

When walking away from that hospital I thought what have I done. There will not be an off-licence open in Scarborough on Christmas morning. But find one I must. I tramped around the town and eventually actually found one. I just couldn’t believe it. In I went, and bought a quart bottle of Brown Ale. Whistled it back to my billet.

So, that evening, back to the hospital I went. Into the ward, he was sitting up in bed. Most other patients had guests with them but my Old Boy had his eyes glued on the door when I appeared. Sat on the bed and produced the bottle from beneath my Great Coat. He had a large jug on his bedside table containing water. I picked it up, took it to a basin emptied the contents, dried it with a cloth that was there. On his bed once again I poured him a pint and a half of beer. Handed him the jug which he gripped with both hands and took a hefty swig. Then he waited a few moments and his old eyes filled with tears.

At that moment a nurse opened the door and called out ‘Look out, the Matron is coming’. All the nurses hurried about tucking bed clothes and generally tidied-up. My bloke said ‘What do I do?’ I said ‘put it under the bed clothes, she won’t notice.’ I was worried that he would spill the lot and ruin his bed, but all was well. Along came the Matron, stopped at each bed, had words with the patients. Arrived and ‘our’ bed. ‘Happy Christmas Mr so and so’ then passed on to the next one and in so doing she turned and said to ‘my old boy’ ‘Enjoy your pint of beer’. She gave me a wink and went along.

After she had left the ward, out came the jug and he proceeded to have a fine Christmas drink. He said ‘Do you know what this is?’ I said, ‘A jug of beer, just a Christmas present – different war, that’s all.’ He said, ‘I’ll tell you what it is.’ ‘OK’ I said ‘Tell me’. He said, with tears in his eyes ‘“Brotherly love” that is what this is’. It seemed that I had made his Christmas. And when I walked back to my billet I thought yes, he made mine too.

Many years later, I was thinking about the incident and I suddenly thought, what a fool I was, that beer might have killed him. I did not know why he was in hospital – there was no sign at his head ‘Nil by mouth’. Then I remembered what the Matron had said, consoled myself with the thought that if the beer was in any way harmful, she would have confiscated it. So hopefully all had gone well. Then I discovered that Christmas is a ‘giving’ period, not ‘taking’.

I learned so much while in the RAF, apart from flying. One was the sheer joy in being a member of such a brotherhood. This I feel was culminated in June 1946. The war was over and I awaited my demob. I was still flying a Spitfire was told that thee was to be a Victory Day parade in London. Army, Navy, Civilian Services, etc. and the RAF was to mount a massive fly-past of 600 aircraft – every plane type was to be there. It was to be the largest armada of aircraft ever. There would only be ten Spitfires. Douglas Bader would lead in one and I was to fly one of the others.

What a day it was. We took off from West Malling in formation and headed for Fairlop, Essex. Fit ourselves into the massive fleet then direct to Admiralty Arch, along the Mall, over Buckingham Palace and return to base. Speeds were a problem, we had Halifaxes in front and Lightning jets behind. Constantly throttling back to avoid flying through the slower ones in front – same problem for the jets behind. The sheer joy of those that task was that the pilots were representing those countless thousands of chaps who had flown those aircraft types but hadn’t survived to fly it on the Victory Day celebrations.

I feel I did make a score for the RAF about twenty years after it had finished. I have two sons, the elder one (now resident in Australia) on reaching the appropriate age, joined the Guards. He did quite well, reaching the rank of Grenadier Sergeant, but on reaching his Battalion was posted to Wuppertal in Germany. He wrote to me around October and said that he had met a lovely German girl and they wanted to become engaged on Christmas Day, there at her home in Wuppertal.

He asked if his mother, I and our other son could travel to Germany for the celebrations. We, of course, went. Met the girl Silke and her parents. Her father could speak a little English and I had some German. I mentioned to him that there was no Christmas tree. He explained that in that part of Germany, the family didn’t see the Christmas tree until Christmas morning. He then said that when the family had gone to bed he would bring in the tree and decorate it. Would I like to help him?

When the time arrived, I helped him carry the tree into the house from his garage and a large box of lights, candles and other decorations and we set about working on the tree mainly in silence. While doing this I looked at him and thought, he is about my age, I hope he doesn’t start talking about the war.

He did. He mentioned that he was proud of the fact that he dropped many bombs on London and other towns. Then he proudly said that he was an air gunner on a Junkers 88. I thought and a ‘happy Christmas to you too’ then unfortunately (in a way) he said ‘Were you in the army?’ ‘No.’ ‘The Navy?’ I said, ‘No, I was in the Royal Air Force.’

His whole attitude changed, he said ‘Royal Air Force?’ Then said, what was I doing? I thought, shall I say I was in the cook house or accounts. No way. I drew myself up to full height, stuck out my chest and said, perfectly clearly, ‘I was a Spitfire Pilot’ and thought, pick the bones out of that.

He said ‘You a Shpissss Peelow’, I said yes, pick the bones out of that.

Admittedly the word ‘Spitfire’ must have been a dirty word in Germany, during the war, but the silly fool didn’t realise that Junkers was a dirty word in England too. The effect this had on him was unbelievable. He looked as though he was due to have a heart attack at any minute. His face went as red as a beetroot, he was perspiring like the dickens, he couldn’t speak. But we continued to decorate the tree in silence. It took him at least a half hour to calm down, but he finally did and we resumed a little talk and almost a laugh. I said ‘How stupid life is.’

Had we met each other twenty years earlier, we would have killed each other on sight yet here we are decorating a Christmas tree together.’

We had a good day together, next day and finished the day, having had quite a drink – rolling down the road, arm in arm, singing Lili Marlene, together. The engagement didn’t last beyond Easter. I’m sure that it wasn’t my fault.

The war in the air was won by British guts and determination that Britain never will be slaves.

But we wouldn’t have won it without the British Sense of Humour – second to none in the world.

Links & Notes

567 Squadron http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/No._567_Squadron_RAF

John Peaty died in 2011.

page last updated 9 Nov 11: ACA Surrey Branch 2010