PER ARDUA AD ASTRA (IN HOLLYWOOD)
Derrick Croisdale - Pilot
No.4 British Flying Training School,
Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona
I was a Lancashire lad from a working-class family in an East Lancashire industrial town which nestled in a valley surrounded by the Pennines. After the Battle of Britain my sole ambition was to fly. I was a scholarship pupil at our local Grammar School and became Flight Sergeant in the school Air Training Corps.
In 1941 we spent our summer camp at No.2 Advanced Flying Unit, RAF Millom, Cumbria, flying in Avro Ansons in which our job was to manually wind the under-carriage up and down. Bomb-aimers were being trained and I remember one occasion when a 25 lb bomb failed to release. The pilot took especial care to make a smooth landing!
At age 17 I got on my bike and cycled 25 miles over the moors to Blackburn to enlist in the RAF. After rigorous selection tests at Blackpool I was accepted for pilot training. In 1943 I reported to the Aircrew Reception Centre at Lords cricket ground, London. As I had never travelled further south than Manchester this in itself was an exciting experience. We were kitted out, inoculated and taught to polish the floors in our billets until they shone like mirrors. Our personal belongings and bedding were inspected daily and had to be laid out with mathematical precision. We drilled ad infinitum.
Then on to our Initial Training Wing based in the Shakespeare Hotel, Stratford-on-Avon. We studied theory of flight, engines, navigation, meteorology, radio, Morse, Air Force law, etc. For relaxation we route-marched the length and breadth of Warwickshire and spent hours perfecting formation drills.
I sailed from Liverpool on the Mauretania which crossed the Atlantic in ten days. We were unescorted and, thankfully, avoided contact with U-Boats thanks to Mauretanias speed and ULTRA intelligence from Bletchley Park. We docked in New York. What a fabulous sight after war-torn England. My destination, via Canada, was No.4 British Flying Training School, Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona.
Ahead lay six months of intensive training. On average about two per cent of cadets were killed in training and thirty per cent were eliminated for failing to reach the required standards. So, if you were keen to get your coveted wings this was not the time to relax. However, halfway through the course we were given a weeks leave. Everyone made a bee-line for Hollywood!
The American hospitality was overwhelming. Three of us were invited to stay at a house in Beverley Hills and I have memories of a midnight BBQ on Santa Monica beach and of meeting Shirley Temple and Alice Faye at the film studios. The theatres of war seemed a long way away!
Derrick Croisdale (right) and fellow cadet fraternising at the University of California,
Los Angeles, April 1944 source: Croisdale
But it was soon back to reality and our advanced training on the North American AT6 (Harvard to the RAF). I got my wings in mid-1944 and was soon on my way back to England. We sailed on a French liner, Ile de France, again unescorted, along with about 10,000 American and Canadian troops destined for action in Europe.
We docked on the Clyde and the RAF pilots went to the Majestic Hotel, Harrogate, for assignment. Most of my contemporaries were told to volunteer for the Glider Pilot Regiment (otherwise they would be transferred anyway!). This was to make good the recent heavy losses suffered by the Regiment at Arnhem.
For my sins (or virtues!) I was posted for flying instructors training. Thereafter I flew twin-engined Airspeed Oxfords at Advanced Flying Units and Tiger Moths at Flying Training Schools. One of my pupil pilots from the Fleet Air Arm rose to become an Admiral!
I was demobbed in 1947 having logged 1,100 hours of flying and attained the RAFs highest instructors rating (A1 category). I felt my boyhood ambition had been satisfied, and, as a bonus, I had been to Arizona and Hollywood!
Strong bonds were formed between the cadets who trained in Arizona and the local citizens. Twenty-three cadets lost their lives in training and are buried in Mesa cemetery. Since 1945 the Arizona Chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire have lovingly tended the graves and organised annual memorial services.
In 2004, I, along with sixteen other ex-cadets attended the memorial service which included gun salutes by the US Air Force, a fly-past of Harvards, a pipe band of the Arizona Caledonian Society, choral pieces by a local school choir and a solo rendition of White Cliffs of Dover. On each grave were the crossed Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes to symbolise our enduring friendship.
In 2009 my wife and I attended the last of the annual memorial services. Our trip was featured in our local paper and I gave a talk about it to the ACA Surrey Branch: here are some of the images from that talk:
Derrick Croisdale is 7th from the left in the back row: source Croisdale
Derrick Croisdale with a restored North American Aviation Texan (RAF:Harvard): source Croisdale
plaque commemorating 4BFTS at Falcon Field: source Croisdale
PER ARDUA AD ASTRA
On June 12th 1982 this plaque was unveiled to commemorate the years 1941 to 1945 when Falcon Field was established as No.4 British Flying Training School.
To this airfield came many Air Cadets of the British Royal Air Force, British Commonwealth Air Forces and the United States Army Air Forces of whom 1380 British and 116 American pilots gained their Wings before proceeding to flying duties in the Armed Services of their countries.
On behalf of all those who trained at Falcon Field the Falcon Field Association members record with gratitude the devotion to duty of the management, instructors and all other staff of Southwest Airways Company and the generous hospitality of the people of Arizona which has forged bonds of lasting friendship.
We remember proudly also those of our comrades who gave their lives in the common struggle for freedom during the Second World War.
"They shall renew their strength and mount up on the wings of eagles."
Cadets who did not complete the course: source Croisdale
Leatherhead Advertiser article 15 Oct 2009 - please click image for a larger version
Links and Notes
Falcon Field, Mesa, Arizona http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Falcon_Field_%28Arizona%29
page last updated 7 June 2010: © ACA Surrey Branch 2010