111th Observation Squadron
World War II Narrative History
Part IV: In The British Isles
On the morning of October 3
we woke to find the continuous pulsating under foot stopped once again. We were in the
harbor at Gurock, Scotland, surrounded by lovely rolling hills of countless shades of
green and canopied by scores of silver barrage balloons glistening in the early morning
light. By mid-afternoon we had been conveyed to shore in a tender and were greeted there
by a kilted clan of pipers. Before boarding the train we were besieged by a host of
apple-cheeked lassies and matrons who kept us well supplied with scones, tea cakes,
cookies and piping hot tea. We would have liked nothing better than to be able to extend
our stay in so hospitable a vicinity, but the M.P.'s and our First Sergeant had other
plans. Soon our train was rolling southward past bombed-out areas, well-camouflaged air
fields, and country folk who waved to every car and gave us the "Thumbs-Up"
Our all-night train ride was interrupted shortly
after midnight when we dismounted to stretch, and give into some more coffee and cakes
provided by kindly ladies who took the stampede in their stride. Back we went into our
blacked-out compartments for a resumption of the reassuring click-a-clack. Shortly after
dawn the train pulled into Needham Market, where we were met by British Army lorries and
conveyed to Wattisham Station, an RAF air base.
Wattisham Station is about fifteen miles from
Ipswich in Sussex County, and approximately seventy miles northeast of London. The first
thing that met our eyes upon unloading from the truck was a badly demolished building
which, at one time, had been a barracks. U.S. Army personnel who were already stationed at
this field and were therefore qualified as veterans had gathered to exercise their
indisputable right to give us, the newcomers, the needle. They pointed to the demolished
barracks and hastened to assure us that this damage had not been wrought by termites.
We were soon billeted in three barracks which faced
a parade ground, and then were taken to our first real chow in a good many hours. The
breakfast menu featured cabbage and beans. Dinners generally gave top billing to boiled
mutton, turnips and carrots. Granted this was war, but the line should have been drawn
somewhere. We soon looked forward to afternoon tea, at which time highly palatable cheese
and toothsome cakes were generally available. The crafty operators soon found a way to get
"seconds" by eating very quickly in the mess hall downstairs and then
highballing it upstairs for another go-around. It was learned too, that our regular
rations could be ably supplemented by routine pilgrimages to the British NAAFI (Navy,
Army, Air Forces Institute) and the Y.M.C.A. At these places cakes, tea, coffee or
chocolate could be obtained at special hours during the day and every evening. The NAAFI
also sold warm, dark English beer, limewater, and several flavors of sugarless pop.
The day after our arrival at Wattisham, we attended
an orientation lecture given by an RAF flight leader. He explained the necessity for
strict black-out, told us what to do in case of an air attack, and hastened to assure us
that the airplane detection was so developed that spotters knew the instant that an enemy
craft took off from a foreign field, and its exact whereabouts thereafter. The following
morning we were startled by the chatter of a Lewis machine gun, following which came the
roar of a zooming aircraft. Men outside the barracks hit the dirt and then looked up just
in time to see the three dark objects hurtle from the opened bomb-bay doors of a
"black cross" marked aircraft. The bombs, we learned later, had been dropped
into two of the hangars on the line and were 500 and 1,000 pounders. They did not explode,
but all our faith in the aircraft warning system did.
The British monetary system was most confusing to
us and because of the befuddlement brought about by "thr' pence,"
"ha'pence" and "half crowns," they were ruled out of the poker and
blackjack games that held sway during off-duty hours, in favor of ten shilling and pound
notes. Ante of a pound, followed by calls and raises of pot limit made some very potent
pots. It was difficult for the players to reconcile themselves to the fact that a pound
had four times the value of a dollar.
The nearby town of Ipswich offered plenty of
entertainment and the men spruced up at every opportunity to head in that direction. At
first the combination of woman bus driver driving on the wrong side of the road was almost
too much for us, but soon we grew to admire her skill at maneuvering the cumbersome
refugee from a scrap heap. Pub crawling in blacked-out streets became a new and
fascinating sport for us. We learned to establish residence in a bar, down our share of
double-shots before the drought set in, and waste no time searching for more abundant
oases when it did. We found the English girls quite friendly, but total black-out
introduced romantic hazards that were new to us. You could never be sure of what you were
getting. Of course, that worked both ways. In a black-out it was easy for even an officer
to get a date.
We had no aircraft to operate at Watttisham and we
were fully aware that our present status was merely temporary. But when we were told to
prepare for a thirty to sixty-day overseas voyage and be ready to go ashore under fire, we
were all surprised and somewhat perturbed. Our barracks bags were repainted with new code
letters; our clothes, equipment and personal belongs were divided into two categories:
vital, and superfluous. The vital material would be carried with us, while the remainder
would be placed in a "B" bag and sent on later. We have never seen the
"B" bags again.
On October 22 we left Wattisham and returned to
Gurock, Scotland over the same route we had traveled just three weeks before. On the
morning of the 23rd we boarded the Canadian troop transport, the Letitia.
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