John Puttock - Air Gunner
70 Squadron

My story begins and ends in January 1946 at a remote Oasis located in the Libyan desert approximately 700 miles due west of Aswan on the river Nile and 600 miles due south of Derna on the Mediterranean coast. Kufra Oasis, former seat of the Senussi religious empire had been captured from the Italians early in the Western Desert campaign by a free French general with the help of the Long Range Desert Group who then made it their centre of operations.

I was one of five Brits, two army officers, one a civil affairs officer and the other an MO, three RAF NCOs two of us tour expired aircrew warrant officers and one corporal wireless operator.

To explain how I happened to be there I need to begin when I joined the VR in March 1942.

I volunteered for aircrew as a WOp/AG, after attending an aircrew selection board at Oxford I was offered (I was an indentured apprentice in a reserved occupation) training as a pilot. Spending six impatient months on deferred service I finally reported to ACRC Regents Park in October 1942.

John Puttock 1942, from a polyfoto taken in Epsom whilst awaiting training overseas
source: Puttock

A couple of months later with other sprog aircrew I spent Christmas 1942 on board HMT Rangatiki heading for (we did not know it at the time) Durban, South Africa. On arrival, greeted by the ‘White Lady’ complete with megaphone we immediately entrained at the dockside to begin our three day train journey to Bulawayo in the then Southern Rhodesia to start our training including ITW usually taken in the UK.

ITW Bulawayo 1943 - sleeping accommodation
source: Puttock

I successfully completed ITW at Hillside Camp Bulawayo and elementary flying training at 26 EFTS Guinea Fowl (Tiger Moths) before being posted to 26 SFTS Heany for instruction on Oxfords. It was after I had flown solo that my pilot training took a downward turn!

After achieving the impossible by ground looping an Oxford together with other errors I eventually finished up with other scrubbed u/t pilots at Gwelo, a navigation and gunnery school about 100 miles north of Bulawayo. I expressed the wish to revert back to my original choice of Wop/AG but as a radio course was not available in Rhodesia had to settle for straight A/G.

In early November 1943 I found myself with other sprog aircrew on a train leaving Bulawayo railway station bound for operational training units in the Middle East.

Thus began one of the most memorable and interesting journeys of my life. We travelled north-east via Livingstone and Victoria Falls into the then Northern Rhodesia continuing via Lusaka Broken Hill before crossing the border at Ndola into the former Belgian Congo, eating and sleeping on trains. We then transferred on to trucks and then another train reaching Albertville on the western shore of Lake Tanganika early one evening. Embarking on a steamer we spent a rough night in a violent storm below decks arriving the following morning at Kigoma on the eastern shore.

Boarding another train we travelled east to Tabora before turning north to Mwanza on the southern shore of Lake Victoria. My memory fails me at this point (probably too many beers the night before) but we either continued our journey by train or embarked on another steamer for the south north crossing to Kisumu, a former Empire Flying Boat Base on the north eastern shore.

We felt a bit cheated in a way for it was here at Kisumu that we boarded a Sunderland Flying Boat and landed on the Nile at Khartoum several hours later. We then embarked on a Nile Steamer for (the icing on the cake) a three or four day cruise downstream until we reached Aswan across the border into Egypt. From here we entrained for what was possibly the most uncomfortable part of the journey to Cairo and eventually 22 PTC Al Maza.

The whole journey including the three days from Durban had taken about three weeks. Apart from the section between Kisumu and Khartoum it was all overland by train, truck and steamer. It was extremely well organised and we were never without a bed for the night or a meal even in the most remote areas. If we did not eat and sleep on the various methods of transport, accommodation and meals were provided in some of the towns through which we passed.

The only wildlife I remember seeing is when travelling by truck and crossing rivers, usually by a raft lashed to a motor launch, when we could see the heads of hippo and crocodiles sunning themselves on the bank, neither species however took any notice of us. At one overnight stop I clearly remember seeing African Giraffe Women complete with necklaces and bangles but cannot remember the location.

The next eighteen months are not meant to be part of this story but briefly were taken up with crewing up and operational training at 76 OTU Aquir in Palestine, followed by operational flying with 70 Squadron (205 Group) based at Tortorella located on the outskirts of Foggia in southern Italy.

After completing 39 operations on Wellington IIIs - mainly oil and railway targets in the Balkans as far east as the Ploesti oil fields, and including Bucharest, mining the Danube to prevent oil supplies reaching Germany (in which we later learnt we were highly successful) and other targets in Austria, northern Italy and southern France - I, with other tour expired aircrew, was posted back to Egypt to undergo training as instructors in our various aircrew categories.

On completion I was posted to 77 OTU in Palestine as an instructor and remained there until shortly after VJ day when we were told that the unit was to be closed and all NCO instructors invited to re-muster to other trades. During training I had become interested in meteorology I therefore chose met observer and that is what was offered. After attending a short met course I found myself working in the met office at Khartoum when volunteers were called for to man an outlandish met station in the desert.

That is how I happened to be at Kufra alongside Jack my ex-aircrew colleague and ‘Olly’ our wireless operator who had completed a tour of duty here before. We had arrived in a Dakota after a five or six hour flight from Khartoum, as this was a rare event many local inhabitants were on the airfield (a stretch of hard sand) to greet us, most had never been outside the Oasis but included the two army captains, Pierre and Andre the two French army NCOs who I believe had been at the Oasis since its capture from the Italians. It was their job to look after French interests in the area, they lived in an ancient fort a short distance outside the Oasis.

Our job was to prepare and send weather reports back to Khartoum every six hurs and included strength and direction of upper winds every twelve hours. I particularly remember tying to fill balloons with a gas in the early hours of the morning when it was freezing cold, tying on that resembled a Chinese Lantern containing a small candle, releasing the balloon only to have the candle blow out at the point of release. I then had to start the process all over again, the procedure was that we followed the balloon through a theodolite taking readings every minute.

From this, with the help of a slide rule, we were able to work out the wind speed and direction at various heights. The weather never seemed to change much during the three months that we were there, the nights were freezing cold but daytime temperatures were in the top eighties and low nineties and no precipitation at all. We were thankful not to be there during the hot season when daytime temperatures reached around 110 degrees (F).

The two Frenchmen were in the habit of throwing numerous parties when large quantities of alcohol were consumed including date beer. To this day I cannot stand the smell or taste of dates. Another excuse for a party was the arrival of the supply convoy from Benghazi, although it happened only once while we were there. Under the command of a British Brigadier, who was also the Civil Affairs Captain’s boss, the convoy had driven across the desert with an assortment of trucks and drivers of many nationalities.

The evening following its arrival we were entertained by the local Arabs sitting around large circular mats upon which large quantities of food were placed. The meal consisted mainly of meat, from which animal I have no idea. It was, however, very tasty and included what could have been sheep or goats’ eyes but we gave these a wide berth.

My immediate companions on either side were bearded Arabs, on completion of the meal they gave forth loud belches, we understood this to mean that the meal had been enjoyed and therefore replied in a similar manner. The only drink on offer was water drunk from a communal bowl and passed from guest to guest.

Christmas 1945 passed without any special celebrations on our part and in mid-January a Dakota with a relief party and the three of us were flown back to Khartoum and for me the start of my journey home and a few months later demob.

John Puttock in 1946 shortly after demob
source: Puttock

Links & Notes

70 Squadron http://www.raf.mod.uk/organisation/70squadron.cfm
Kufra Oasis http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kufra

page last updated 28 June 2010: ACA Surrey Branch 2010