Robert Leslie (Les) Armstrong – 571147 / 55321
My name is Robert Leslie Armstrong and I retired from the RAF as a Squadron Leader in 1973.
I joined the RAF as an aircraft apprentice in January 1937.
I reported to RAF Halton to join what was called the 35th entry.
I wanted to be a wireless operator mechanic which (was) trained at Cranwell, so after a time at Halton I went off to Cranwell that was in the February. It was shortly after that we started training. Of course, the first week or two was all drill and PT – which nearly killed me! I was 17.
My course at Cranwell was 9M12 which meant that I was due to finish my course in December 1939 but, of course, the war broke out and we were chucked out when the Germans marched into Poland.
That was on a Friday and Friday was the ball night when we brushed up everything, cleaned all the floors, polished them, scrubbed all the tables and all the benches and everything, preparing everything for a parade the next morning, buttons cleaned, boots cleaned and everything was really polished to a fine degree but then the flight sergeant of the squadron I was in he came round and announced that Germany had marched into Poland and that we had to be prepared for war. It meant that anybody over the age of 18, which included me, had to pack up our kit and be ready to be posted.
How did that make you feel?
It didn’t worry me at all -we were all young and daft – it was a great adventure I suppose. Immediately we started packing up and the floor was covered in rubbish in no time at all.
All during that night people were being called forward for posting to different places. Well I wasn’t called forward until the following day which was the Saturday and I was posted to RAF Digby which was not very far away. There I had to join number 73 fighter squadron which was prepared to go to France immediately. When we got to Digby we found that the place was choc-a-bloc with people being called forward, all the reservists and so on, I had to sleep on the floor in the NAAFI. During the night there was an air raid alarm, it was a false alarm of course, we had to go outside and sleep in the ditches.
That was the Saturday, on the Sunday we were introduced to the aircraft. I had never seen a Hurricane before and of course everything was very different from what I had been working on. Anyway, on the Sunday, we were gathered on the airfield round a bell tent, which had a radio in it, and we listened to the announcement by the Prime Minister that we were at war. So that was my introduction,
What was the general feeling of everyone listening?
Well it was a question of excitement really, nobody was worried, they were prepared for it. We actually went off very early on the Monday and I was in France on the Tuesday. That was the 5th, I think it was. Then it was a few more days before our aircraft arrived. We sailed from Southampton to Le Havre. And we occupied an airfield just outside Le Havre for a while. And that was that.
Then, of course, later on, we moved all over the place. We moved up eventually to a place called Rouves which was just near Luxembourg, just behind the Maginot Line. We stayed there until May 10th 1940 when the Germans really blitzed…but, of course, between getting to France and that date, May 10th, our people were patrolling and fighting when necessary and we lost one or two pilots and so on. We on the ground were just having to sort out the aircraft when they came back and that sort of thing.
How did you get on with the locals in France?
Well when we started of in Le Havre, we went into Le Havre once or twice. I met a couple there an Englishman, who had stayed on after the first World War and married a French woman and he had a garage. So, we met him once or twice and they looked after us – very nice indeed. The local people in the bars we went into were just the same. It was very funny when we arrived at Le Havre in the boat, the cross-channel ferry, everybody was welcoming us.
One funny thing – we were down in the hold of the ship and were passing our kit bags up the ladder to the people at the top and shortly after we started this job we suddenly realised that the people up above us had disappeared (laughs) they had gone off to explore the town – especially the brothels! Anyway, they were rounded up and they came back and we got the ship unloaded. We had our own vehicles and we went to places outside the town.
From then on, we moved to different places. The first thing we did was unload all the ammunition. We had just got it unloaded when we had to load it back again and move on.
We were there, in Rouves, on May 10th. On that day the Germans invaded all sorts of places in France, including us. Ten to five in the morning it was – I was out of bed like a rocket!
We moved from there to Reims. We had just got to Reims when we heard that the people we had left behind at Rouves had been bombed. We had just taken that in when we heard a whistling noise and it was bombs coming down on us! I dived under a vehicle then I realised it was a petrol bowser, so I got out of there quick and made into a slip trench.
Then we moved further back again until eventually we got back to St Nazaire. Sorry, before that we got to Nantes where a lot of us accumulated and we were told we were going home. Because the very places we’d been the Germans arrived just a few minutes after we left. They were just down the road from us,
Anyway, we got to Nantes and a lot of people left on 17th June to go to St Nazaire where they were being evacuated. I don’t know if it was one bus load or two bus loads but anyway they arrived in St Nazaire and got on this boat the Lancastria, have you heard of the Lancastria? (No) Well that was an ex-liner that was in the harbour and it took on, we don’t know how many people? Could have been five or six thousand, or more than that. For some reason or other it didn’t leave the harbour and the Germans attacked and sank it. We don’t know how many thousand people were killed on that but, from my squadron, 37 people on the buses were killed. I should have been on it, but I was called back to see the aircraft off the following morning.
So, we had to go further south to La Rochelle where there were a couple of coal boats in the harbour and we commandeered these boats, (laughs) came back sleeping in coal! We went in to Newport in Wales. It took us about three days to get back because we had to go out into the Atlantic. From there we were re-kitted, we went to Raseby (?) and got new uniforms. Then we got sent off to a place, oh what’s the name of the place, a place in Yorkshire. We all assembled there and they asked us all, “When did you last see so-and-so?” Then we sorted out who was who, and who was missing.
From there we were sent on leave for a few days and then the squadron got organised again.
It was just getting organised when I was posted again. I was posted to West Africa, Takoradi. At Takoradi I was in the advance party. When we got organised we were building aircraft. Aircraft arrived, either on aircraft carriers or in crates, and we assembled them and then they flew across Africa to the Middle East. This was 1940. I was in Takoradi for a while then I was sent into Nigeria, a place called Whydoogri (?) which was one of the staging posts on the route. That was much better because at Takoradi we were being over worked. We were having to work all sorts of hours. It was called the white man’s grave at that time -it was the Gold Coast. We were suffering from insect bites, prickly heat and I got Malaria as well! So, I was glad to go to this other place up country which was much drier and much more comfortable – but there were still nasty things around like snakes.
As I say, the aircraft came in having flown from the previous place. The flew from Karno to us in Whydoogri then should have gone to the Middle East. What they did, from Takoradi a Blenheim Bomber was sort of the guide ship for six Hurricanes. Then they flew together to staging posts to staging post. When they got to the staging posts we did an inspection on them to make sure they were ok, repaired any faults, and on they went. That was quite good, I enjoyed that. A much better climate.
My pastime, when I had time off, was horse-riding. I bought my own horse because you could buy a horse for about £3. Anyway, I had one horse I was riding one day, and I hit a tree and broke my arm. So, I was forced out of combat for a bit. Anyway, I was Ok, I managed to cope alright.
Then it was in January 1942 that I came home. I had to come back, fly down the route to Lagos in Nigeria and from there back to Takoradi where I got a boat which brought us home.
I was posted again to RAF Ouston and I had been promoted to Corporal then.
From there I went to an Operation Training Unit at Usworth, that was in Durham, Of course I was near home then.
When I got home I got married. (laughs) My wife meanwhile had joined the WAAF and she was down in Wales while I was near home. I arranged for her to be posted near to me, which was done, and that was fine, but meanwhile I was posted down to Cranwell again! So that was that!
At Cranwell I was on a pre- commissioning course. I did six months there on this wireless course and then I went to the Officer’s School at Cosforth for a month. When I finished there I was commissioned as a Pilot Officer.
When I left Cosforth, when I was commissioned I was given the opportunity of saying where I wanted to go. I said I wanted to go to Head Quarters, 13 Group which was in Newcastle, near home. Meanwhile they had moved up to Inverness and that was fine. After a while there I was sent up to one of the stations right up in the North of Scotland. That was OK. I was sent there to relieve someone who had had an accident on his bike. I was only there a short while and then I was sent out to Stornaway. That was OK, no problem. From Stornaway, I got a phone call one day asking me if I’d like to go overseas. So, I said “where to”? Instead of saying “no” I said “where to”! The bloke at the other end said, “I can’t tell you, but they’ve got elephants!” That gave a lot of choice! (laughs)
Anyway, I said no I didn’t want to go again as I’d just got back and then a few days later I got a signal that I was posted back to West Africa again.
This time I went to Sierra Leone which was awful, a terrible place. We had flying boats. (Why was Sierra Leone awful? In what respect?) The weather! The weather and insects and what have you – and the natives of course.
There was an echelon servicing Sunderland flying boats and I was there when the end of the war came. They wanted to fly people home in the flying boats, but we weren’t allowed to. We had to take them out to sea and sink them. (Why?) Well there was a surplus of everything and it was a question of British manufacturers producing new stuff, they didn’t want any of the old stuff? It was the same with all sorts of things. I’d had problems servicing the equipment and I wanted replacements and I just couldn’t get them. Then, just before we left, I was asked to do a survey on a maintenance unit which was just along the road from us. I went there, and they showed me a big hangar affair and said, “There’s a lot of radio stuff in there but we don’t know what it is.” So, I went and looked over it and it was all the stuff I’d been wanting. I got the stuff out in the open and it was all no good. Anyway, we had to dump all that. Then we came home.
What did it feel like when the end of the war was announced?
It’s difficult to say. We had been prepared at one time to be free Britains the same as free France, you know, England being occupied. It got as desperate as that and we were afraid. But of course, we came back home and just settled down and everything got back to normal.
When did you leave the Forces? At the end of the war?
No, I stayed on. I’d had a temporary commission, for the war, and then I got an extended commission. Then, in 1948, I was given a permanent commission which meant that I had to stay on until my 55th birthday. Actually, I came out a year before I was due out.
Where were you stationed then?
I’ve got a list of places I was at… Ouston, Cranwell for commissioning and officers school. 18th November 1943 I was made a Pilot Officer.
Where did you see the most action during the war?
Well, that was in France obviously, we were right in the frontline. Of course, I was on the ground servicing the Hurricane aircraft. Not in any real danger except when we were bombed. In fact, I think we were in more danger of being shot or killed by our own people!
We had a CO who used to drink a lot and he would come up to the airfield, get in an aeroplane and buzz around the airfield. In Rouve there was a church with a steeple and then there was a sort of council place with a tower. He would do a figure of 8 around them and would come back as sober as can be. He would fly over the blooming airfield and shoot a few shots into the middle of the airfield.
I had another experience, when we first arrived at Rouves, I was in the advance party and I was put on a guard duty, on the first night, for all the vehicles. I was with two other blokes, they were armourers. Between the three of us we had to do the night, split it up between us, and we had one revolver. In the morning, I was sitting on the steps of one of the vehicles and one of these armourers started playing around with the revolver. He took all the bullets out except one. He said I’ve got to press the trigger so many times before it fires. So he fired. The bullet went past my knee and went through the mudguard of the vehicle and bounced off the tyre. He’d forgotten that the weight of the bullet would bring it round to firing position. Anyway, that was another one!
Another one I had, we did guard duties, of course the weather was bad, we had a terrible winter, we had snow for month after month. It was cold as well of course and we had petrol, we used to get in 4 gallon cans, it was solid. When we had to get warm we cut the top off the can and light the petrol. It was alright, it just burnt like a piece of ice.
On guard duty one time I was plodding along and, as you plodded along, the snow behind you fell in, it was so frozen on top, it fell in and it sounded like someone walking behind you. On this particular occasion, the two of us together were walking round and the orderly officer appeared, and he made us split up and go in different directions. That was fair enough. I had only gone a little way when someone shouted, “Halt, you by the light, halt”. There was a light some distance away, and I thought I was in line with it, and there was a shot. I don’t know how near it was to me but I was mad, so I charged towards this place and I found the orderly officer hiding under an aeroplane. Later on, I got one of the books written by a friend of mine and he mentioned the case of the orderly officer finding somebody wandering around the aircraft and the shot being fired. So, all I can say is thank God he missed.
What was the camaraderie like?
You mucked in and did other people’s jobs. Sometimes, I did my job and the armourers were busy and you would go and help them. The officers of course, we didn’t have anything to do with them. The pilots really were separate. Very often I’d be called to an aircraft and the pilot was in the aircraft ready to take off and he’d say that his wireless wasn’t working. So, I would climb up on the wing and look into the cockpit. There was a socket where he plugged his headset into, and very often he hadn’t plugged it in! They were always very grateful.
One time we had a lot of losses. A lot of the older pilots were relieved, and we got new ones. I remember one time we got five new aeroplanes in one day and we had to fix them up. In fact, they were fitted with wiring for a new type of equipment but had the old equipment there but wasn’t connected. So, we had to connect them. One time we were working on this when one of the new officers came along and asked if he could help but I said no it was a job for one person.
Did you lose anyone close to you?
Just before Christmas in 1939 we lost two sergeant pilots. They weren’t really close to me but they were people I knew and worked with.
What sort of things did your wife do during the war?
She went as an electrician to St Athan in Wales and she was looking around these great big accumulators and was working mainly on Wellington Bombers. Then she was mustered as a wireless operator and had to learn morse. Of course, I had been trained as a wireless operator as well as a mechanic, of course I didn’t do it at all. When I was in France I was complaining about not being promoted. We didn’t have a signals officer then one came from Wing and he said to us that if we brushed up on our morse and got up to proper speed I would get promoted. Meanwhile, I had been promoted but I didn’t know it, but anyway we practised out morse. Later on, when I was commissioned, I went back on this pre-commissioning course, and they assessed us then for speed. When we had been passing out from Cranwell as apprentices we had to get 25 words a minute, when I went back and was assessed I think it was about 4 words a minute (laughs).
What do you think about the training you had?
The training was first class, it really was first class. We did morse of course, did workshops where you had to file up some metal and make things of metal, did some lathe work, and so on. We did wiring on vehicles, generators. It was all old stuff but it was good.
We did radio theory from the word go and electrical stuff, charging accumulators and things like that. We did geography and history.
During the war itself did you feel well equipped?
Oh yes! Cranwell had been in use for some years. There were civilian instructors.
Was your father in the first World War?
Yes, In the first world war my father was in the army, the Royal Field Artillery. In the second World War he was in the Navy, so he saw more of the world than I did. I didn’t learn an awful lot about him, but I have all his medals. He wanted me to join the Navy, I could have joined the RAF sooner, but there you are.
Did you ever want to fly?
Oh yes! The idea when I joined was to be a sergeant pilot. To be a sergeant pilot you had to take a trade first of all. You did your trade for about six years and then, after six years, you could apply for pilot training. Of course, the war changed all that. If I’d joined a couple of years later, I could have joined straight as a pilot – provided eye-sight and everything was ok.
After the war, about 1946, I was posted to Manston and I was there just as an assistant signals officer. I went there in August 1945, I’d only been there a little while, about six months, when I was posted to the pilotless aircraft unit in Mannabeer. They used to fly Tiger Moths with no pilots. I was sent to Farnborough for training, because there was a new one going to come out, a different type of aircraft with a different type of control, but then I went down to Mannabeer and we were flying these pilotless aircraft. There was an army shooting range just on the coast we’d fly the aircraft out to sea and they would try to shoot them down. It was very interesting.
From there, that was about April 1946, I got a message, a signal, from HQ telling me to go to Fighter Command HQs for an interview. So, I went there and met the Wing Commander who gave me a message. He said, “Read that”. So, I read this thing and they wanted someone to go to the radio place at Great Malvern, TRE, Telecoms Research Establishment, to do a radar job.
So, I said to him, this is radar, I don’t know anything about radar. During the war most of the radar had been done by Canadians. Of course, they were all going home so they wanted other people to take over. So, the WC said to me, well you’re an ex-apprentice, you can do this. I went to TRE when I was supposed to be introducing, to the RAF, an airborne interception equipment which was for night fighters. It had been put aside a long time ago. The bloke who was doing it before me was shot down by a Spitfire. It was more or less put on one side for years but I had to start it up again. While I was there, the equipment was installed in the Mosquito so I flew all the trials on that. I did about 70 trips in the Mosquito. A lovely aeroplane, I liked flying in that one. I did about 18 months flying in that and, of course, working in the workshops as well. But the equipment was never brought into service. There was an American equipment, which was AI Mark 10, ours was AI Mark 9, but Mark 10 was better in every way so that was introduced. This was 1946 -1950.
Did you meet anyone famous during the war? Any names that would be recognised?
Oh yes! In my squadron, 73 Squadron, we had Cobber Kain. You’ve heard of him of course. Well he was the first Ace of the war – he went and killed himself in June 1940. There were one or two others. Of course, the pilots, the ones that were left after France, they came back and took part in the BoB so we lost a few there. Then they went to the Middle East, the desert Airforce, and again we lost them there.
One of the blokes I met, a chap I’ve been reading about, a German General called Steinhoff. He became the Chief of the German Air staff after the war. One of my postings after the war was to NATO and the central organisation Allied Airforces, Central Europe, which was at Fontainebleau in France. This Steinhoff he’d been one of the real Aces of the German Airforce, I think he’d claimed about 170 aircraft shot down. They were the first ones to bring out a jet aircraft, the MA262 I think it was, and he was flying one of those and it blew up and he was very badly injured, burned and so on. I met him when I was at Fontainebleau and he was a very nice bloke.
When I first went to Fontainebleau I had to go and meet the chief RAF officer of the squad who was an Air Marshall. When you had to go to his office, best blue, all your gloves, hat, and all the rest of it. When I got there the SPA said, “take your hat off and leave them here and I’ll introduce you. So, I went in to the Air Marshall and he came to meet me like I was a long, lost brother, he shook hands, he really was a lovely bloke. He was one of the old blokes, you know, in fact he was an Earl, the Earl of Bandan he was. We always called him the ‘abandoned Earl’ (laughs)
I did two trips to NATO. I did that one and, later on, I did one when the HQs had moved to the Netherlands. I was with the regional signal support group there. It was from there that I retired and came back home. I was looking for a place to live and, meanwhile, I was given a quarter down in Manston.
What is your abiding memory of the war?
As far as I was concerned it was quite a good war, I was young and daft to start with. I was never in any real danger.
At one time we thought it was possible that we would have to abandon the UK and fight from over there, or somewhere else.
Were you ever frightened depressed or worried?
No, no, no. The weather was bad, for months on end I’d be dressed in my greatcoat, tin hat, gas mask and gum boots and you got so that your socks just got worn out and so on. I used to go into town and get a bath about once a week. The camaraderie and so on was the thing. Everybody mucked in together. We helped each other out and it was no great problem. I’ve got a lot of little stories, I could go on. I can remember better things that happened then than I can remember what happened yesterday.