Ronald Graham WATTS
Mentioned in Despatches Twice
Serial Number: NZ404974
RNZAF Trade: Pilot
Date of Enlistment: 1st of December 1940
Rank Achieved: Wing Commander
Flying Hours: Total: 1646 hrs (Operational 611 hrs 25 mins - 567hrs on DH Mosquitoes)
Operational Sorties: 121 Ops (285¼ operational hours)
Service Details: See full details below
Date of Birth: 11th of March 1916, at Auckland
Personal Details: Ron was the son of Mr and Mrs G.B. Watts of Woodward Road, Mount Albert, Auckland. He was educated at Cornwall Park and Mt Albert Grammar Schools, before moving to Cambridge. Whilst living in Cambridge he was a prominent member of the Hautapu Football Club and was a Cambridge representative rugby player. When Ron joined the RNZAF he had been a shearer at Dingly Dell, but prior to this he'd also worked on the farm of Mr Wilfred Harbutt of Fencourt. It was from Mr and Mrs Harbutt's place that he was farewelled when he joined the RNZAF.
He was married to the late June, and was father of Judy (now Anderson), Tom and Richard.
Date of Death: 28th of August 2009, aged 93, in his sleep at home in Hamilton. A service was held for Ron at St Francis's Church, Hillcrest, Hamilton and he was creamted.
Connection with Cambridge: Ron Watts was born and educated in Auckland, and he shifted to Cambridge in 1936. He was a Cambridge resident right up till he joined the RNZAF.
I interviewed Ron Watts twice, first by telephone on the 21st of September 2003, and then on the following day I met him in person at his home, where he kindly told me the story of his RNZAF career. Ron is a very charming and friendly chap, and I found him very modest about his role in the war, despite being one of the few New Zealanders to command a New Zealand squadron in the RAF. Ron has also allowed his amazing photo collection to be scanned. You can click on the smaller photos to go to another page with a bigger version. Ron's tale is fascinating, and I hope you will find the following extracts from those interviews as interesting as I did.
Ron Watts was born in Auckland on the 11th of March 1916. In 1936 he shifted to the Cambridge and found work in the rural parts of the district. “Yes, I worked on a farm at Fencourt, and Te Miro, for a year or two before the war. I was out shearing too, to make a bit of money,” he says.
When the war broke out in 1939, he knew he wanted to join the RNZAF. However, before entering the Air Force a precursor to Ron's training actually took place in Cambridge itself. He remembers, “Before I went we were doing some Morse training. We used to go down to the Post Office, and there must have been ten or a dozen of us then. I think only one came back, me.” An awful statistic.
Many of Ron's workmates and friends were also to join the RNZAF.
“I was shearing at Gordon Vosper's shed up at Dingly Dell, just out of Cambridge. And my two shearing mates were Bill Stuart and Lloyd Chamberlain, who really came from more Te Awamutu way. We were the three that were shearing together, and Roy Calvert was the wool classer. And we had visits from Bill Suckling and Mick Dillon, who were also Air Force. And also in the shed was a friend of Gordon Vosper's, Dick Sampson. And Bill Hewett. I think of all of those, only Roy and I came back.
Entering the RNZAF
On the 1st of December 1940 Ron entered the RNZAF, where he would begin the process of learning to fly. He says, “I trained in New Zealand for the first two stations – the Initial Training Wing at Levin, then I did my elementary flying at Bell Block.”
"When we were at Levin we were under canvas." Pointing to one of his photos from that era, he says, "That's Jimmy Weteri. He was a Maori All Black. A second five-eighth. We shared a tent to begin with."
Of life at the Initial Training Wing at RNZAF Levin he remembers this, "It was pretty primitive. We had cold water, cold showers, cold water for shaving."
At Bell Block, near New Plymouth, Ron learned to fly on De Havilland Gipsy Moths, and De Havilland Tiger Moths. “Gipsy Moths first,” he recalls. “Gipsy were even older than Tiger. They were very similar except the Gipsy was made from plywood rather than fabric - on the body anyway - and their wings weren't staggered. That is, one was straight above the other, whereas the Tiger Moth was staggered, the top wing's ahead of the other. "
"I had a pretty stress free go on the Tiger Moth," Ron remembers. Indicating the first flight noted in his log book, he says, "I'd never seen an aircraft until then, that was the first time I'd seen an aircraft close up, or touched one.
That was my first trip. And I didn't think I was doing too well at all, but I was astonished when the instructor got me to do a circuit and then got out and took the stick out, and said, "Go on, off you go." I'd only done six hours, and that was the minimum permissable. So I was actually the first of that course to go solo. I was terrified! I was looking round - I couldn't look in the cockpit, luckily there was an airspeed indicator on the wing, and just by airflow the little pointer went - I was sure that some other idiot was going to fly into me, crash me!" he laughs. "I was too busy looking at an aircraft two miles away, you know. "Keep out of it!" But I had apparently no trouble at all. No bother."
Having passed the elementary training stage in March 1941, Ron then became one of the many thousands of RNZAF aircrew who were to be sent to Canada under the Empire Air Training Scheme. But before he left New Zealand, he was given embarkation leave, which he spent at Cambridge. And his home town marked his departure with a farewell put on by the Cambridge Patriotic Committee. He recalls, “It was just a little ceremony at the Town Hall. It was advertised, it was people there not connected with me personally. Quite a little crowd of us.” As with all departing servicemen, Ron was presented with a Patriotic Committee wallet. The presentation was made by the mayor, Edgar James.
“And then from there I went to Canada on the Empire Training Scheme." Ron travelled with his coarsemates across the Pacific abourd the SS Aorangi on the 27th of March 1941. "We were the second course to go on the Empire Training Scheme, as pilots. The first course was just two or three weeks ahead of us, and they also went to the same station, Dunnville, Ontario – right on the shores of Lake Erie. It was a lovely aerodrome. Two runways, one for landing, one for taking off."
"We flew Harvards and American Yales, which were very similar to the Harvard but had fixed undercarriage and not quite such a powerful engine.” These two types, the Yale and the Harvard, were the only types that Ron flew in Canada, and the ratio of one to the other in his flying hours on each is about half and half.
Click here or here to see a Yale
Ron continues, “I think there were 60-odd of us went over to Canada. I Suspect about a third of us came back, I suspect . Actually it was interesting that right up until the time we got our wings, we hadn't had a fatal accident, which was perhaps unusual. But once we got to Britain a lot of the boys went onto OTU's, and they just died like flies. Which I think is, possibly, partly due to the fact that the training is all very well, but you're not a competent pilot by the time you've done 100 hours, or 120 or whatever. And the other thing, a lot of the aircraft were pretty clapped I think."
Ron's RNZAF Coursemates in Canada - Course No. 46/1
ABOVE - Back Row:
LAC Henderson: LAC Catterill: LAC Longuet: LAC McVeag: LAC Gavin: LAC Calder:
LAC Compton: LAC Patterson: LAC Frederickson
LAC Anderson: LAC Ron Watts: LAC Downer: LAC McDonald: LAC Davidson:
LAC Cornwall: LAC McLure: LAC Black
LAC Thorpe: LAC Gartrill: LAC Woodcock: LAC D. Jones: LAC Emery: LAC Peacock:
LAC I. Jones: LAC Bishop: LAC Reid
LAC Moore: LAC Burman: LAC Murray: LAC Woodham: LAC Irving: LAC Hilliar:
LAC Falconer: LAC Newell: LAC Craw
LAC Hepburn: LAC Stephenson: LAC Shepherd: LAC Everis: LAC Fisher:
LAC Coulam: LAC Verry: LAC Browne
LAC Bull: LAC Moodie: LAC Hanan: LAC Rawson: LAC Blair: LAC Cronin:
LAC Crofts: LAC Polson: LAC Sturt
Ron graduated as a pilot on the 27th of February 1942, and he also received a commission, making him an officer, on that date. He says, “At the completion of training, the top third in the course were commissioned when we got our wings.”
Instructors Course at Upavon
“When I got to Britain I took an instructors course, and became an instructor. And I was an instructor altogether about eighteen months."
This flying instructors course was at Upavon. "We flew Masters and Avro Tutors. The Tutor was like a big Tiger Moth. It had brakes, that was the only refinement. I loved them, they were beautiful to fly, lovely. That was our elementary training there, and you could do anything with them once you got the feel of them, they were just terrific. We used to have contests from time to time. Two or three would go along wing to wing at 1000 feet over the airfield. One would give a signal, and we'd see who could land nearest the fence. And you'd put them on one wing, and you'd just go straight down and just keep your speed right, and you could almost, depending on the wind, you could almost bring them down vertically. They were great fun, I loved them."
"A great fright I got was when I was flying at Upavon on the instructors course, and there were two pupils together, myself and another pupil. We were flying along and a Messerschmitt 110 flew over our heads. It caused a certain amount of fluttering. But it was from the experimental station nearby, it was a captured one! It had the British roundels on it - not that we saw that! And he deliberately did it, you know, shot right over us."
Click to see a website on the Miles Master
Click to see a website on the Avro Tutor and this page about the Shuttleworth's Tutor
Instructing at Ternhill
So once this course was complete, Ron began instructing other pilots at Ternhill, a job that was difficult to get away from. "Once you're an instructor its pretty hard to stop instructing. Actually it was very frustrating, but it probably taught me to fly properly. When you've just got your wings you really are not a very competent pilot.”
“I was instructing on single engined things, an aircraft called a Miles Master, and Hurricanes which were pretty old and clapped out. And we used to go to a neighbouring station and fly Spitfires just for experience, so we could pass on that to our pupils."
"We used to go to an aerodrome called RAF Sealand, not too far away, and used to fly them there." Ron flew Spitfire II's at Sealand, and also flew the type at other local airfields.
Of course he also flew the Spitfire on Ternhill itself, where he filled the role of test pilot. Ron remembers, "What we had on Ternhill was a maintenance unit, where they used to rebuild Lancasters and Spitfires. And sometimes when they rebuilt a Spitfire they wanted it test flown, and they'd get one of us to go over and do it. And seeing that I'd flown them, I had that job once or twice. I remember testing these Spitfires, and they were great fun because you had to test them at full throttle and fine pitch, and get to 500 or whatever, to test the constant speed on the prop. That was quite a buzz."
Ron remembers flying the Master, of which they used two different models. "Master I and Master III. The Master I had a Rolls Royce Kestrel engine in it. I liked it, it was good, but they were all old, very very old. The Master III had a Pratt and Whitney radial." It was unusual for a British aircraft to have an American engine, but Ron liked them too. "I got on well with them. I had one engine failure, that was the only trouble I had. It blew up in midair. But I was a bit lucky because the weather was shocking, and Training Command was full of red tape, and they were more interested in their returns to headquarters of the amount of flying they'd done, than in useful flying. The hours were more important than whether they were useful hours or not. And we'd had about a week or more of unflyable weather, and this day the clouds lifted. It was 800 feet cloud base, 10/10ths cloud, and they said "Fly!". Well, what do you do? The pupils who were training then had got their wings. It was called an AFU, and Advanced Flying Unit then. And I could see them all taxiing round, you know. And you imagine the number of aircraft nose-to-tail taxiining round and taking off, circuits and landings. Useless! These boys had their wings, and overheating on the ground!"
"And I said, "Oh to hell with this." I knew all the country around about, over to the west and north very well. I'd flown it for twelve months or so, I even knew the shapes of the little dew ponds on the farms, things like that. So I said to my pupil, "We'll climb away." And we climbed up through the cloud and got up above it. It was about 4000 feet up, the top. And we did some aerobatics and I did more aerobatics into wind than downwind you see, so it kept me around about, I reckon, around about there. Because we had no radio, just speaking tubes."
"So when we came back I got the pupil to do some stall turns to lose height. And we'd just lost height into the cloud, and the engine blew up! And he was half out, the pupil was half out! He was in the front cockpit. And I said, "Oh no, taiho, hang on." And of course there was oil everywhere, hot oil, and you couldn't see very much. I knew that if we got through the cloud at 800 feet we couldn't bail out, so we were committed to a forced landing. I took over of course, and flew through the cloud, and when we came out, if you'd asked to be put anywhere it would have been exactly there. We were on the downwind leg of the biggest aerodrome in the district, absolutely perfect position to land. And there was a hydraulic hand-pump in the front cockpit. We were able to pump the wheels down. We weren't able to pump the flaps down, we didn't have time. but he got the wheels locked down."
"And there was a gang of navvies working on the runway, and even though we were trailing black smoke, they never moved off! I had to stretch over their heads! We finished the landing run opposite the taxiing strip to the flying contol tower. We had enough speed to turn off and park in front of the flying control tower. Now could you do a more perfect forced landing than that? It was absolutely brilliant!" he boasts.
"And do you know, they were going to Court Martial me? They said I'd done too many aerobatics and blown the engine up. I said, "I'll tell you what. I didn't do anywhere near anything like as much damage to the engine as all those aircraft crawling round, overheating. That's when the damage is done." And I'm very careful when i was aerobatting, I always closed the throttle when we were upside-down, that sort of stuff. That was another little episode that stays in my mind. But how lucky could you get? Oh dear. I had luck on my side there."
"Another case on that aerodrome too - we had satellite aerodromes. There were too many instructors to fly off the one aerodrome so we had satellites. We'd fly in the morning and a bus would take the extra pupils down. We'd do our flying from there, and then fly back at night. And one that wasn't too far away from Ternhill, it was called Childs Ercall, and we lost it to another outfit. But a lot of our aircraft had been unserviceable and were left behind. So two of us got the job to ferry these things back when they had been repaired. And we drew straws, and I got the job of ferrying them, and the other chap got the job of taking me to and fro. And two of them were Hurricanes. The first Hurricane was all right, i came back with that all right. The second Hurricane, I started it up, and everything seemed all right. I tested the switches and all that. Everything was all right, or seemed all right."
"I took off and got airborne and got the wheels up, and that was it. It wouldn't go any higher. And I suppose we were 100 feet up, and full throttle and fine pitch, and it wouldn't climb any more. Everything on the dials was showing all right, the boost was there. Everything was right. And if I'd turned back to the airfield I'd have stalled and spun in, because I was just above the speed of stall. So I was better to keep going and the airfield was just there, so I kept going. And we lost height just all the way across! It was touch and go whether we got there or not. In the end I even got the wheels down, and I couldn't do a circuit to land into wind. I had to land downwind on the grass alongside the strip. And NOBODY NOTICED you know! Incredible, isn't it? Land downwind on the grass! That was a few anxious moments there. No enemy action in any of those, but they were still anxious moments."
Ron relates another story about the Hawker Hurricane. "You know, the control for lifting the wheels up and flaps down, like a gate-change in a car. And, it was quite funny, we had radio in those Hurricanes. It was the only aircraft in Training Command that had radio. And they also had a gravity tank above the dash, and you used to take off on the gravity tank in case you had a failure in the petrol pump. And you'd get somebody up there and they'd start screaming. They couldn't get the wheels down! What happened was, if you selected the wheels up, the wheels came up, but if you didn't move that lever back to neutral, the hydraulic pressure would build up behind them [because of the gravity tank]. And you couldn't move the lever back into neutral."
"But, everybody knew about this, and all you'd do was give the lever a hefty bump forward and brought it back quickly. And the hefty bump forward released the pressure enough to get it back, and you were all right. Everybody was told about this before they flew the things, and everybody forgot! So you knew that if a Hurricane was missing after half an hour, they'd forgotten to change off the gravity tank, or if they'd started screaming on the radio, they'd forgotten to move back to neutral."
"We had one chap, one day on the radio. He couldn't get his wheels down. He was only supposed to do a circuit and landing, and he was screaming and screaming. And of course he'd left the thing on transmit so we couldn't talk back to him. And he was flying around and around and around, and there was plenty of time for one of our instructors to take another aircraft and fly alongside him, and make signs to him. You know, "Switch off." But he was panicking, and in the end his engine ran out because he hadn't gone off the tank, the gravity tank. And he landed, well he didn't land, he went downwind over the runway about five feet off the runway. Beautiful, right the full length of the runway. And when he got to the other end of the runway he went straight into a concrete gun emplacement, set in the ground there. And he hit it with such force that the tail of the Hurricane came round and was next to the cockpit. Like a staple. And he got away with a broken leg and a broken nose! You wouldn't believe it. He must have been doing, I suppose, 100mph when he hit it."
"But those were the Hurricanes. They were all old and we had a lot of trouble with them. They were still nice to fly, but they were very old and beat up. We had one, they had a panel over the machine guns - ours weren't fitted with guns but this panel was still there - it was held in place with locknuts, lockscrews, and they came lose and the panel stood up, just like an airbrake on one side. The plane was absolutely uncontrollable. The chap walked away from that, he was lucky."
"That's the trouble with old aircraft. Another one, a Master I, with the Kestrel engine. The panel over the top of the engine lifted, came back and went through the windscreen and decapitated the pupil in the front seat. And there was an instructor in the back seat. he thought the thing was breaking up, so he baled out. And they found the pupil's head a way back, so his story was true, he wasn't making it up. And that was just old age - all the screws had worn and should have been replaced."
"There were a lot of accidents in Training Command. One year we had, it must have been February, I hesitate to say now but it was something like over 20 fatal accidents on Friday the 13th. And of course being February, the next month, March, was Friday the 13th again. Everybody was so careful! There wasn't any accidents at all!"
"Early on, when I first went to Ternhill - Ternhill was in the Midlands, reasonably close to the Welsh border - one pupil came back and told his mates he'd found a viaduct in the Welsh hills, and he'd flown underneath it. And once again, I hesitate to say, but it was something like 20 of them killed themselves. And probably that original fellow hadn't done it, he was just saying it. But they got low down and the winds probably caught them, or what ever. They just crashed one after the other. Terrible."
At least one danger was no longer present for these pupils when Ron got there. "The German Air Force, by the time I got there in '41, it had had it. It wasn't invading any more. they used to go down, further over the channel a bit perhaps, but I don't recall any attacks by day over Britain by that time on. They were thoroughly beaten by then. Sure, over the continent was a different matter."
Ron would sometimes fly with other instructor's pupils. "When I passed out as an instructor I was a B Instructor, they had categories A, B and C. Before you could send anybody solo as a C instructor you had to have him tested by a B instructor. So some of the other instructors would have got them up to a state to fly, but then I would have to do a night solo with them, one circuit with them before they could go solo. A lot of these were just one circuit. I'd wait on the runway, the plane would come in, the instructor would get out and I'd get in and do one circuit, and away they'd go. There was a lot of that at that station."
"Later they recategorised us, and we did it with a testing instructor. And I was recategorised A2. And A2 was the highest you could get. A was the highest you can get, A2 was to be either on a single or a multi engined aircraft. A1 was categorised on both, both single and multis. So I got categorised A2 on singles."
Another little sideline to Ron's time at Ternhill came when he did a week-long course at the Beam Approach School at Watchfield. "It was a wonderful business though. They were a very, very remarkable piece of equipment. I did a course on it, and while we were there, the weather was appauling - low cloud, it was clear underneath - and of course it was just ideal for this. It got you through the low cloud no trouble at all." He was not to use this skill operationally later however.
After 19 months of training pilots, Ron was itching to see some real action. He recalls, "I applied to go onto ops, because I reckon I just felt I'd have hated the war to have gone on to a conclusion and to have let somebody else taken all the risks, and me just have a sheltered life.” He qualifies this however, “Although it was far from sheltered, being an instructor. One day we were talking - a bunch of us -and we reckoned there were 25 instructors killed in the last 12 months. And the strength on that station was about 125 instructors. And none of that was enemy action. For many, many reasons of course, but none of it was enemy action, just flying accidents.
“I used to have a theory that a lot of our flying accidents in instructing were due to this – we were flying Miles Masters, which were something like a Harvard, about the same size as a Harvard – and when the boys got on that, the pupils, it was really the first powerful aircraft they'd flown. And I suspect they'd say, “Oh well, lets see what she can do.” And they exceeded the speed limit and probably the throttle setting. Well, that was all very well, but if that happened two or three times, and some poor innocent fellow coming down the line, if he got the thing that had been ill treated, then he suffered. That was the theory, but I couldn't bear it out. But it accounts for some of the crashes, which were inexplicable – very, very experienced pilots. We had no radio, so they couldn't call us up and tell us what was happening.”
“So really it was a risky job in some ways, but I still felt that I would hate the war to have gone right through and never to have been in action. So I kept putting in for a posting to a squadron, and eventually they let me go.”
Switching To Operations
“They gave me three choices – I could go to a Photographic Reconnaissance Unit, which was a plum job, I should have taken that but it meant a six month navigation course – I knew that, and I didn't want any more six month courses."
"Or I could have night fighting, and I forget what the third one was, it might have been Army Co-Operation. And I wasn't particularly fond of night flying at that time, but I took that as being the least arduous one to get into."
So once he'd made his choice, Ron had to learn the ropes of operational flying. He went to Spitalgate to do a course on the twin-engined fighter/light bombers, the Bristol Blenheim. Here he flew several marks of the Blenheim. "!, IV and V, I did all three. I liked them, they were all right. Most of the pupils had just got their wings, and they were terrified of them. But I found them a nice aircraft to fly, no trouble at all. Because I'd done a fair bit, I'd done 900 hours flying by then, that was quite a bit. And I found those all right."
Following that course's completion it was on to 54 OTU at Charter Hall, where he flew Bristol Beauforts and Beaufighters. Like the Blenheim, he also very much liked the Beaufort. "At OTU we did a little on Bristol Beauforts. And I liked them too. They were like a big heavy bus. They were very stable and very nice to stall, they stalled beautifully."
"I had one amusing incident there, when we were flying these things. Some Air Training Cadet people came along, and they wanted a ride you see. And these Beauforts, I was instructing then, and we took pupils up to give them experience - normally at night to show them the flare path and that sort of thing. This time I took this fellow up, we were doing stalls. I forget the circumstances, but this little Air Cadet fellow, I sat him in the seat at the back of the plane, strapped him in and we took off. And I forgot he was there. We did these stalls, and of course you pulled the nose up, then throttle off and she'd flop down. And then pull her up again, and she'd flop again. Poor little fellow in the back, he wouldn't have known what was going on, and he'd shoot up in the air, shoot down again! and when we got out he didn't stop to thank me!" Ron howls with laughter. "He sort of just scuttled off. Poor little fellow. I didn't have a mess to clean up anyway."
As mentioned, Ron had found himself once again instructing. "When I did my Operational Training Unit on Beaufighters, they were short of instructors, so when I'd finished the course they kept me back as an instructor there for a little while. So it was hard to get away.”
He remembers another Beaufort incident. "I had a tyre blow on take-off one night. I had two pupils on board, taking them up to show them the flare path. We just got part way down the runway and the tyre blew. You make up your mind quickly, you know, shall I get airborne? Shall I stay down? You've got tons of runway; I'll stay down. And so I stayed down, and we kept it pretty straight on the runway until we'd just about slowed down, and then the wheel grabbed and we veered off onto the ground. And it was very dry, and we sort half ground looped. And the starboard engine stopped with a great backfire and a burst of flame, and it reflected in all the dust we'd stirred up. I turned to the pupil next to me and said something, made some comment. And the chap who was sitting behind me wasn't there! There was a little fellow running along! He wasn't going to stop and get burned up. He was out, goodness knows how quick he got out, but he was gone. He was up the perimeter track, flat out!.
Choice to fly at night
Ron talks about the fact that he had a choice to go onto flying at night. “I did, I certainly had a choice," he says. "When we first went over to Britain they gave us night vision tests, and I think they probably went by that a bit. I know on my test, there were several of us took this test, and there was a central console. And you looked at your little part of it and it had symbols on it. You had to write down what symbols you saw. They might be numbers or letters or crosses or whatever. One of these chaps was an Australian; his name was Bricknell. Oddly enough he was a bricky in civilian life, and he was very clever. They had a chair, and they put a paperclip on your collar, to hold you so you couldn't get up and have a close look. He undid the paperclip and got up, and he got a great score. But he wished he hadn't, he killed himself in the finish, so I heard."
“But I don't know if it was that test that influenced them, I couldn't tell you, but I had the option of three. PRU, that was the plum job. I should have taken that, I deeply regret not taking that now. I forget what the third one was, it wasn't bombers. And they wouldn't let me go on day fighting, even though I'd done all that single engined flying in Hurricanes and Spitfires. They said I was too old. I was 26, and they liked them young. They like the ones who rush round on motorbikes nowadays, you know. Mad cap people. So I was given the choice, and I chose night fighting. It was an odd choice because I didn't really enjoy night flying at that time, but I got to like it. I quite enjoyed night flying, and I found landings no more difficult by night as by day. I could land every bit as well by night as by day.
“I think what put me off a bit when you started night flying, in Canada, I had a Canadian instructor. He was a sergeant, and I wasn't a snob but I knew that after twelve months you get your Flight Sergeants, and I thought, “This boy doesn't know much more than I do. He's just about as new as I am.” And his advice night flying was, “just dive down until you think you're near the ground, pull the nose back and close the throttle”. Well, you know, that's a recipe for disaster! And that's the only help I got night flying. And when we got to Britain, I did this instructors course and night flying there was by gooseneck flares, like a watering can with a spout, filled with kerosene, and you light the flare. Well they had those. I think they were about 50 yards apart, and then 100 yards. At the far end of the runway they'd have another one each side 50 yards apart. It wasn't much to go by. And you could take off from the left side of the flare path, and land on the right side so aircraft were taking off and landing at the same time. No radios, and on a pitch black night with just this handful of flares, for someone experienced it would be all right, but if you're starting out it would be a little bit of a strain. I coped all right, but I can't say I enjoyed it much.
“But later on when I was flying by night, we had lights on either side of the runway. Not too close together, I suppose they were closer together for a start, then spread out, then closer again. And if you wanted them, they had a thing called the Milky Way, which was a much, much brighter set of lights on each side of the runway. And the first quarter was green, then white, and the last quarter was red. So as you came in, you knew where you were going along. And they were bright . They also had a horizontal searchlight called a Chance light, and that would shine along the runway too, and I hated that. I'd get them to switch it off. I'd much rather just land on the ordinary lights. You didn't want to see the ground; it was just getting the perspective of the lights coming down. I didn't want the ground lit up; I found it confusing.
"Same with when we were starting to night fly, at night flying OTU and things like that. They'd start you at dusk, and let you fly from dusk into dark, so you got used to landing with a little bit of light. And I detested it. I'd much rather have started off in the dark. Oh yes.."
Eventually Ron did get away from instructing at the OTU, and finally got onto an operational squadron. He was posted to 488 (NZ) Squadron, a night fighter squadron made up mostly of New Zealanders. They had been flying Beaufighters up till the time when Ron joined, but when he arrived they were converting to a new aircraft type... “And when I got onto the squadron, we converted almost straight away to Mosquitoes. And seeing as I'd been an instructor, they made me the instructor of the other pilots onto the Mosquitoes. We had a dual control Mosquito, and so I was able to do a little bit of that. So once you're an instructor, look out, you're there!”
Ron did manage to fly the Beaufighter VI with 488 Sqn, but not operationally, and not for long. He says, "When I started flying with the squadron they were flying Beaufighters. We converted to Mosquitoes pretty much straight away. Pretty much as soon as I got there."
Flying The Beaufighter vs the Mosquito
I asked Ron what was the Beaufighter like when compared with the Mosquito? He answered, “I still enjoyed them, I thought they were very good. When I was doing my Operational Training Unit I flew the Beaufighter Mk II, and they were, I think, probably underpowered. They had Rolls Royce Merlin engines, and they had a propensity to swing violently to the left on take off if you weren't careful. If you did it properly there was no problem. But there were quite a lot of fatal accidents on the OTU from people swinging on take-off. And the later ones, the Beau Mk VI didn't have that fault, I don't know why. It had much more powerful radial engines and it was a very, very nice machine. It was heavier than the Mosquito, and in the Mosquito your navigator sat side by side with you in the cockpit, whereas in the Beaufighter he was sitting away back down in the tail. So it was a bit more companionable in the Mosquito.”
I also asked what was the Mosquito like to fly as a night fighter? Ron says, “Beautiful. I had no complaints at all.” The squadron flew various models of the Mosquito.
This dual Mossie was a Mk III model. Ron says, "The III was the dual controlled one, so that wasn't operational of course. It had no armour plating, no guns or anything. It was very much lighter, so it was a good little aircraft to fly. "
He continues, "The XII, I think, the rated altitude with that when the superchargers kicked in was about 16,000ft. They were automatic two speed, two stage superchargers. And, I don't know how they were regulated, but they kicked in at a rated altitude, and I think it was 16,000, which was good when you were climbing away, and you were getting into the operational height of about 20,000. Most of our work was done at about that."
"Well, then they started us [chasing the planes who were] mine laying in the Thames Estuary and things like that, and they reckoned they wanted speed low down, and they brought out the next one, which the supercharger kicked in at ground level. But it was ridiculous because the mine layers were travelling very, very slowly. You didn't need speed. And by the time we'd got these, they'd stopped mine laying and they'd gone back high! But they still were perfectly acceptable aircraft."
The squadron spent most of their operational time with Mosquitoes flying the Mk XII and Mk XIII, but near the end of the war a new model replaced these.
"Well then we went to the Mk XXX, and that was just a different engine and a different radar. These earlier ones had a Mk VIII radar, and the Mk XXX Mosquito had the Mk X radar, which was a giant step back for our navigators, they didn't like them very much. You see, the Mk VIII had only one cathode ray tube, and it was excellent and very easy to read, whereas the Mk X went back the same as the Mk IV - before the Mk VIII - with two tubes. One for vertical and one for horizontal. So you had to go from one to the other constantly. They were side by side of course."
"The Mk VIII radar had an oscillating aerial in the nose of the aircraft. It started off with a very close oscillation and went wider and wider and wider. And it showed on the cathode ray tube as an arc, and when the target was dead ahead, the arc would be a complete circle. And then if the target was above the arc would be above, or out to one side the arc would correspondingly go out there. And the distance from the centre to the arc was the range, so it was excellent and the navigators loved that one."
The Mk VIII radar was also able to home in on the beacon used by RAF stations to guide aircraft back to base in bad weather or other foul conditions. Ron adds, "And you could alter it so that you got onto the radar beacon, you could just switch the switch over and that gave a straight line down the middle of the cathode ray tube. And the distance from your blip to the datum point was the distance to the beacon. You showed as a blip on either side of the centre line, and if the blip was out to the right, you were to the right of the beacon. When you'd centralised that blip, you were pointing at the beacon, and there was no error. It was great, and you could pick that up for about 80 miles, so it was very useful." He laughingly adds, "So we didn't need a navigator much, if you couldn't get within 80 miles you were out of luck."
Ron would eventually complete 121 operational missions, but he is quick to qualify this amount by saying, “That's not like bomber ops, I was night fighting and they weren't very dangerous at all a lot of the time, they were just routine patrols.”
Despite the many patrols Ron made, he was not to have too many encounters with the enemy, “Very few. By the time I got to be night fighting, which was 1943, the German Air Force had shot its bolt, and they didn't send bombers over very often. And for a start when I was night fighting we had radar of course, and it was top secret. Our radar was far more advanced than the German radar, so we weren't allowed to fly over enemy territory in case we got shot down and they got our radar. With the start of the second front, that rule was relaxed, and we patrolled well into Europe then. Over France and Holland and Germany and all the rest of it. We flew from Britain until an aerodrome was liberated in France after the start of the second front, and we went to Amiens Glisy in France, and we stayed there for the winter, and then we went up to Holland and I finished the war in Holland at an aerodrome called Gilze Rijen.”
Gaining Command of 488 (NZ) Squadron
“That was the only squadron I went on. It was supposed to be 18 months or 300 hours ops, on a tour, but I had not been there terribly long – I was a Flight Lieutenant when I went there – and I was promoted to Squadron Leader to take over one of the Flights. The set up was two Flights in the Squadron, each one commanded by a Squadron Leader, with a Wing Commander in charge of the lot. And at that particular time, one of the Flight Commanders, a Squadron Leader, had come up due for his rest – he went on rest – and the other Flight Commander got killed. He disappeared. So we needed two new Flight Commanders, and I guess I was the senior Flight Lieutenant so I got made up to Squadron Leader. And that more-or-less started my tour again, you see."
"And so then, at just about the time of the invasion of France, I think they decided they wanted a New Zealander in command of the New Zealand Squadrons. Up until then we'd had English commanders. And I was, once again, the senior Squadron Leader, so much to my astonishment I was made up to take over the Squadron as the CO.”
The Night Fighter Squadrons
488 Squadron flew alongside other squadrons also flying Mosquito night fighters. "We had three usually on our aerodrome - that's not quite correct but near enough - we certainly had three in Holland and France. One English, one Canadian and ourselves. And we would be 2nd Tactical Air Force, or 2nd TAF. Now, back in Britain, they had more as a reserve, but I wouldn't like to say how many - not very many. 85 Sqn had been doing that, but I think they changed over to something else. 219 Sqn was the English one; 418 Sqn the Canadian. Basically the three of us, those three squadrons, was the defence of London, before the invasion, and then we moved across to the continent"
"But that was our task, defence of London. And even if we didn't do anything else, if we deterred them from attacking London, that was something. Sometimes I recall we used to get intelligence reports back where the enemy used to send over twelve aircraft and we'd get the lot - us, nightfighters, and the ack-ack. We'd get them all, so that would deter people from it. They wouldn't be too enthusiastic about going over and losing the full strength."
Personal Aircraft and Personnel
Did 488 (NZ) Squadron assign their crews their own personal aircraft? Ron says, "Yes, pretty much. It depended on your ranking in the squadron. As CO, which I was at the end of the piece of course, I had my own aircraft, and it was understood that that was mine unless there was an emergency and they needed to call on it. The Flight Commanders each had their own aircraft, something the same, they didn't lend them much. Then the senior Flight Lieutenants were allocated an aircraft, but that could be flown by somebody else. We didn't have enough aircraft to give and say, "Well that's yours." The establishment was really only 25 aircraft on the squadron, but basically most of the time we would have 30 or more I think. The same as our establishment for aircrews, with probably 25, but we might get 35 or more."
"That was one of the disadvantages of being a New Zealand squadron, as new young pilots came through, if they were New Zealanders and they were being posted to a night fighting squadron they'd come to us. Whereas we'd get the old experienced ones go on rest, and then they'd go to another squadron somewhere else, so we'd lose all that expertise. it was very difficult, because I reckon a pilot wasn't much use to you on his first tour. He was still feeling his way, learning the job. So it was a bit of a shame that you lost your experienced pilots."
"We had a nucleus of very good pilots, they were the successful ones. I suppose you could count them on the fingers of one hand, the really good pilots."
The squadron had a lot of men in it overall. "We had 300 men on the squadron, plus probably 50 aircrew. There was the Adjutant, and the Warrant Officer Discip., all the clerks..."
Did 488 (NZ) Squadron aircraft carry any nose art or personalised names? Ron says, "No. That was an American habit. One of them, it was a Mitchell I think, came in and landed, and the nosewheel either didn't go down or it buckled under the strain of landing, and it ploughed along on its nose on the runway. And the name of the aircraft was Gravel Agitator! Well named! The only casualty was one of the crewmen, in his panic to get out of the thing, jumped from the doorway up by the tail and broke his legs. Otherwise they were all right, but I suppose they were frightened of fire, you see. But I was much amused at this Gravel Agitator"
Even when he was the CO of the squadron he didn't bother to personalise his aircraft, which was a common practice in the RAF. The codes of the CO's aircraft could become the pilot's initials if they wished. But Ron says, "No, one CO put his little flag on, but I never bothered about that sort of thing. You could have done it. Some of them used to put down their little victories on the thing, little crosses or whatever, swastikas."
The 488 Sqn Base Companions
"Bradwell Bay, that was my favourite aerodrome. We were there for quite some time. It was right on the coast in Essex, just north of London. I believe there's a big nuclear power station there now. And we, from time to time, had a Tempest unit there. And when we were in Holland we also had a Meteor squadron. The Meteors had never met the Germans in combat. And they sent them over there to see if they could meet them and just see how, one opposed to the other, see how they got on, but they never did. They never came up. And the Germans were starting to fly jet aircraft. They were flying them at night, just about near the end of the war. And they were fast. I chased a few, but, oh, hopeless. Twice as fast as me! The ground chap would be abusing me, "Go faster!" "I am!" But we were starting to get losses too. I don't know if my squadron lost any to the German Messerschmitt 262 I think it was, but certainly one of our squadrons on the airfield had one or two shot down by Messerschmitts."
The Squadron Magister
"I had a good trip on a Miles Magister. When we moved to Bradwell Bay, we moved from Drem in Scotland, on the Firth of Forth coast. And the Magister wasn't serviceable so it was left behind, with some other aircraft that had to be ferried down. And I volunteered to go up and fly this Magister back, just for a bit of fun. And when I started out the weather was pretty good, but it closed in very rapidly, and I couldn't keep up above cloud, you see we had no radio or anything like that, so I snuck out over the coast and flew down the sea, just above the sea and under the cloud. And I got an oil leak, and had to go back inland and find an aerodrome, and drop down to get some more oil and get them to fix the leak up. The oil pressure was falling back and the temperature was going up. So anyway, I got down to Bradwell Bay, and I made the normal approach you'd make with a Mosquito, you see, and got over the fence, popped it down and stopped it! I looked an absolute idiot - 2000 yards of runway! I just about had to take it out and get airborne again to get down the end! I felt a complete fool."
Life on Squadron for 488 (NZ) Squadron
Even on active service, the military mind of the Air Force saw to it that the squadron pilots had to do PT. "Yes, they used to get a bit fuzzy about that. They made us run a mile at one stage. When we were at Bradwell Bay you had to run a mile, I don't know if it was every day or three times a week or what it was now, but yes they did get at that. But we never did organised PT, and we never did organised parades."
"At training, yes, training when I was instructing, they used to have parades. We didn't go on the parades much, but we had to take them sometimes as inspecting officer. And we used to do a lot of physical work anyway, played football. I played football right through. We had a good team on the squadron. In fact we had two teams because one flight was usually on duty. And we played a lot of squash on the old established aerodromes, most of them had squash courts. And you could borrow racquets, we played a lot of squash, so we had to keep reasonably fit."
"Once we got off Training Command it wasn't pushed onto us at all. Actually on the squadron, the emphasis there was doing your job properly, and things were pretty free and easy. Officiousness was kept to a minimum, you didn't have much brass business. You could be a bit scruffy and get away with it, it didn't really matter, so long as you did your duty properly and made a good job of that."
Ron feels tht their squadron was particularly relaxed because it was a New Zealand sqaudron. At least one other squadron on the base was markedly different from 488 in Ron's perception. "The Canadian squadron, when I used to visit them in their crewroom, I didn't like them at all. A lot of them were excellent fellows, nice chaps, we got on well with them. But when you went in the crewroom they were squabbling, and a most unpleasant atmosphere I thought. Abusive, bad language. Didn't get that in our unit at all."
"Another odd thing in our outfit too, they weren't womanisers. They'd get on the beer, sure, and a few of them got married, but by and large they didn't chase the girls at all."
"Another thing that was very odd to me was, every time you flew I suppose you knew it could be your last trip - not that it preyed on your mind - but if you had a church parade it had to be compulsory for anybody to go. Nobody was trying to have ten bob each way," he laughs, "That always amazed me."
Ron says he found himself attending three seperate funerals for aircrew during the war. Rather than recalling them as the sad occasions they were, he actually found each had a humourous story attached. "One I went to was for a pilot. His wife was at the funeral, and for some reason she decided to stand beside me at the graveside. She was understandably very upset and I suggested that she'd be better going over and standing with the rest of her family, but she wanted to stay with us, the squadron chaps. Anyway, it came time for them to fire the volleys, the 21 gun salute. These airmen were lined up in two ranks, one in front of the other, with rifels at the ready. The first volley went off ok, you know, "Ready! Aim! Fire!". But on the second one a chap in the back row fired his rifle on the command "Aim!" and blew the hat off the fellow in front of him. The rest of us were just wetting ourselves, but trying not to laugh out loud with the widow standing right there!"
"On another one, we were all in the church for this funeral and the widow was seated up the front of the church. It was just about to begin and all of a sudden in walks another widow. There were two of them. When they realised this, it was all on. A full out fist fight, biting and scratching, the lot. It was a real debacle, poor chap's funerla. Just hilarious."
"And there was this one when the squadron was at Bradwell Bay. We had to travel some distance to the funeral for this chap, and the RAF laid on a bus, etc. When we arrived in the village we found we were early. So someone suggested we should pop into a nearby pub and have a pint to kill time. We all filed in and had this pint, but the chap organising the funeral said they still were nowhere near ready for us. So we had another, and then another. By the time we got the call to go into the church, we were all drunk, reeling about all over the place. What a disgrace," he laughs remorsefully.
Ron shot down two enemy aircraft during his operational career. He is modest when he describes the circumstances. “Well, they were pretty routine. The first one was an enemy aircraft sowing mines in the Thames Estuary. And it was interesting really that every day – we spent two days on duty and two days off - when we came on duty, we went onto the night state which was listed eight pilots in order of take-off. And this particular night we took off in pairs, although we didn't fly in formation – you couldn't in the dark of course. And I was first off this night, and when I went down to the flight, there was some little fault in my aircraft, and I couldn't go. And one of my great friends, a chap I roomed with called Jim Gunn, went in my place. And he'd not long gone when there was a raid developed. And my aircraft came right so I scrambled too. And I could hear on the radio, I could hear him saying he was in contact with an enemy and he'd got it. And I thought, you know, if my aircraft had been serviceable I'd have been the one - that was the first aircraft that the squadron shot down - and that would have been mine!”
“Anyway they vectored me down over the Thames Estuary and it was a very, very black night. And they were flying at about 200 feet, sewing these mines, and it wasn't very pleasant at all. But we got a head on contact on our radar, and we had to turn round behind him, and I shot him down all right. And then we found out later that when Jimmy Gunn had shot his victim down, the rear gunner had shot back at Jimmy and shot him down too. So perhaps it was just as well that my aircraft wasn't serviceable.”
Above: This is the actual gun camera shot of one of the two enemy aircraft Ron destroyed
Ron's second enemy kill came later. “That was over Europe, towards the end of the war. It was just a normal interception. You must appreciate that we intercepted hundreds of aircraft, and most of them were friendly aircraft. That was one of the problems, the sky was full of Allied aircraft and there were practically no German aircraft about!”
Was it easy for a night fighter crew to recognise another aircraft as friendly or as a foe? “No, not always. And the radar wouldn't tell you what the aircraft was, it would only lead you. The range of the radar was roughly from about four miles, and you had to be in touch with the ground. We were in contact with the ground the whole time and they directed us, told us where to go, what height to fly, and all the rest of it. And if we were doing an interception, they would aim to put us to within at least four miles of the target, and from there on our radar operator talked us in. And often it was very difficult to pick what the target was, and there were a lot of friendly aircraft shot down that way.”
The second crewman in the night fighter Mosquito – where in day fighters a navigator would usually be – had a different function. Ron explains, “He was called a Navigator Radar, but in fact he didn't do any navigation at all. He was a straight out radar operator. He was called a Navigator Radar, and on his brevet he had NR.”
Though the night fighters hunted alone in the dead of night, they were able to prove their claims by the use of gun-cameras. "We had cameras on the aircraft that took a photograph every time you pressed a button. You could fire the camera independently so you could assess what happened."
Hits on his aircraft
“I got hit a couple of times with anti-aircraft fire, but that was quite rare. Most of our flying was done at 20,000 feet and we were pretty safe from anti-aircraft fire once or twice, but never seriously. I had a pretty charmed life really, because a lot of fellows did get shot down of course. But most of them I would think got shot down with what you might even call small arms fire low down. I know one of our Flight Commanders, the other Flight Commander to me when I was a Flight Commander, got shot down over the battle lines by light armoured fire – machine gun and Bofors, that sort of stuff.”
Other 488 (NZ) Sqn duties
“We always used to test our aircraft during the afternoon if we were going to fly at night. And we tested in pairs, and did mock interceptions…one would be the target… just to give our radar operators practice. So inevitably we trained every afternoon we flew.”
488 Sqn was not just about intercepting enemy aircraft though, another primary role was rescuing allied aircrews. Ron elaborates, “We had other functions too, for example if somebody got lost, and perhaps their electrics had gone and they couldn't get home, couldn't find their way home, didn't even know where they were perhaps, then they'd fly what was called a ‘box'. You'd fly one minute due north, one minute due east, one minute due south and one minute due west, and north, and keep repeating that. And the radar would then pick that up and know then that you were lost and needed help. And over Britain they would direct you by means of searchlights to the nearest aerodrome, but if you were outside Britain they would probably push one of us up and we'd pick you up and lead you home. I have picked aircraft up from the coast of Holland, about a hundred odd miles away from Britain, and brought them back – which must have been comforting for them, especially if they'd be very vulnerable, and vulnerable from attack from fighters too. It must have been quite a relief to see us.”
488's Navy Detachment
Ron recalls, "We had a Navy Detachment. They were navigators and pilots, and they came to get a bit of experience. They were going to fly night fighting with the Navy."
The Most Exciting Op
“The most stressful was, one day, we used to be on duty by day as well. The Flight that was flying at night flew two nights on, and the other Flight was stand-by during the day. The thing was, if you got any very, very bad weather, with low cloud and fog underneath it, the day boys couldn't intercept enemy aircraft. So we used to have to stand by to take off in those circumstances."
"And when that happened, fog and low cloud, the enemy would put a radio beacon across from France to London, with dots on one side, the dashes on the other and a steady beam in the middle. And the German fighter-bombers would fly along that, and when they got a cross beam from another part in France, they were over London and they'd drop."
"And this one trip I had that will stay in my memory forever, it was a filthy, filthy day with very low cloud, at about 200 feet, and fog underneath it. And they insisted I take off. Really, it shouldn't have been, you shouldn't have been allowed to take off. It was virtually an instrument take off, which is not easy to do at any time."
"Anyway, I was fluttering around at about 150 feet, and I knew I couldn't get back in again, so I was stretching the endurance as best I could, flying very, very slowly and low revs, and all that sort of thing. And I was being directed from the ground where to fly. I was over the Thames Estuary, just going to and fro across to cut them off, you see. Nobody came by the way, I think they only put the beam on just to see if some idiot would get up and crash!"
"But as we were going along, there was an object in the water on stilts. What they used to have, they had buoys moored in the Thames Estuary, so if a fighter pilot got shot down, he could paddle up to this buoy, and climb up the ladder, and get in to warmth and food and all that sort of thing. And they had a flag that they ran up the flag post if anybody was in residence. And I said to the navigator, “See if the flag's up”, you see. I thought it was a buoy.
“No fear! It was a fort! The Royal Navy had forts in the Estuary, and they would fire at anything within range - no questions asked - with Bofors! And of course I was sauntering along at about 170mph, which was the point of stalling, at about 150 feet. And they opened fire on me, and the firing was beautiful. The line was perfect, it was right across my nose. Of course if I turned away there would have been no deflection, they obviously thought I was doing 220mph or whatever, and they allowed that much deflection. And when I tried to climb into cloud cover, of course I was on the point of stall, if I throttled up too much I'd go faster and fly into it. It was a long, long while to get up into cloud, a long, long while!
“And the Bofors comes up, it looks like a dotted line as it comes up. And it seems to be very, very slow from the gun, and as it progresses it gets faster and faster, and when it gets in front of you, it shoots across at great speed. But I got up eventually, and everywhere else the cloud had been about 200 feet, but here it was about 1,200 feet! So I was staggering up on the point of stall, and when I got in there, I had something to say to the ground people for putting me over this thing and they apologised, and circled me round, and I was in cloud for a bit. Then they brought me down, and I was right over a battleship! And they too would open fire on anybody within range! So I said “Thank you very much, who's side are you on!” Oh, that was great!” he laughs.
“And then I had to go back, there was no raid, nobody came up, it was all a waste. I had to go back and for goodness how long I had to wait till the fog would let me slip back in. So that was really exciting, without any enemy action, who needs the enemy?!!”
Another Tight Spot
“We were flying over France one night, over the front lines. We couldn't see them of course, but we knew pretty much what it was, the Allied army and the German army. And an aircraft was flying low at about 2000 feet. That's a very vulnerable height for light arms fire. And they were coned, and when I say coned, it was the most intense tracer I've ever seen in my life. It was silver and gold and white stuff, and green I suppose from 20mm, and red from Bofors. And it was all hosing up in a pyramid, and I reckon you wouldn't get a pin in there. Incredible really. And I said to my navigator, “We'll just circle in close, and if he comes out of that we'll pick him up and see who he is.”
However Ron's plan went slightly awry, "We got too close, and they switched to us! Of course I didn't stay too long, I got out of it smartly." But he was sure the Mosquito was badly dammaged by the anti-aircraft fire that they'd flown into. "I felt the controls of it, and thought, “We're going to be like a colander here.” And the navigator said, “Is she all right?” He was a bit concerned.
"We got back home and landed, and we said to the ground crew when they came out – they used to come with a ladder for us – “What's she look like?” And they said, “Oh, all right.” And there wasn't a scratch on it!! Not a scratch. From this, which was so intense that, you wouldn't put a pin in it, and not a scratch . I must admit, I was sort of disappointed,” he laughs.
“With ack-ack, it's a funny thing. If you see an aircraft coned in the searchlights at say 20,000 feet, it looks about as big as a little moth. It looks impossible to hit that little thing. But when you're up there, you feel as big as a barn. It's just impossible to miss me! That's the difference.”
The Mosquitoes had four 20mm cannons. Ron says, “They were pretty lethal. They were armed with semi-armour-piercing incendiary, and high explosive incendiary alternate rounds. And if you hit, it would blow an engine to pieces, and set fire at the same time. They were very, very lethal. They were calibrated 200 yards ahead so they passed over at 200 yards ahead. If you hit something, that was it, no second burst needed. They would shatter an engine block to pieces.
No Press Coverage for 488
“We were never given credit for anything, because we were carrying this secret equipment. There was one press representative, Alan Mitchell, we knew him quite well. I got to know Alan quite well, but he couldn't write anything about us, you see, because of this secret business of the radar. He'd go to 485 or 486 Sqn, and put a big story in, and so we were left with people saying, “Well what are they doing? Pretty cushy sort of a job, that.” But in fact, it wasn't. We had to fly in some filthy weather, terrible.
“Another episode of the sort of thing, we took off one night. I took off and must have been the second lot to go off. The first lot had gone off, and they were just coming back. We used to go off in pairs, though we didn't fly together of course. It was quite a light night, overcast, completely overcast but bright underneath and not too bad anyway. I didn't pay much attention, I just took off, and looked inside to check my speed and lift me wheels, and I looked down and I was in cloud, right off the ground! So I called up flying control and I said “Aerodrome's red, nobody to land.” Orange was very sour is the code word. And immediately the fellow from my squadron who'd taken off from the first patrol called back and said, “Don't you listen to him, its perfectly all right.”
"I said, “Check your altimeter.” I think he'd misread his altimeter and thought he was at 1000 feet when he was at 100 feet. I can't understand how he could make that mistake. He was a very, very experienced pilot. And the perspective looking along from 1000 feet to 100 feet is completely different. He'd been looking at the runway lights. Anyway, while he was talking to me, that was the end of the conversation. I called up flying control and I said, “Get him to check his altimeter.” And they made soothing noises – he'd gone in, he'd crashed."
"But one humorous aside – there's always something funny that goes on – as he went in he hit two American Negro soldiers who were walking along the road. And one of them was in hospital, and of course there is always a court of enquiry when anything happens like that. So the officer who did the court of enquiry went to interview these American Negroes in hospital. And the Negro's story was, “Well I guess me and my buddy was walking along the road, and there was this noise and I found myself in a ditch. I picked myself up and went to my buddy, but I guess he just couldn't take it.” Ron laughs at this statement, and quips, "You sissy! Hit by an aircraft at 200 miles an hour and you couldn't take it!!??” Why did we win the war? What a scream. That's true too that.”
“So anyway, after that we had to go over and land of course. We couldn't land there, no show. So there was an aerodrome right on the south coast of England called Ford, and it had a radar beacon, so you could go and approach from the north, and the radar allowed you to tune into a beacon on the ground. And that was absolutely accurate, so the navigator could put you so you're pointing directly at it. You came from the north and lost height to perhaps a couple of thousand feet, a thousand feet over the aerodrome. Then you went on flying south and you could let down over the sea, knowing there were no obstructions underneath. We had a sensitive altimeter that read straight down, it didn't read anything in front, and it was pretty accurate to within, I don't know, ten or maybe fifteen feet. It was quite accurate. So when you got low down you could look at that one as well as the normal altimeter. And I broke cloud, I did this twice at Ford, I broke cloud at about 200 feet or less, which is pretty low at night on a black night. Then you turned on a reciprocal, came back and landed with a cloud base of a couple of hundred feet. Even by day a couple of hundred feet is pretty good, because all the sheds and hangars are pretty near that tall anyway, and trees, by the time you go on one wing to turn, you're not far off obstacles. And at night in the black, it's pretty nerve racking. That's the sort of thing you had to cope with. If you couldn't cope with it, then of course, you were a statistic and that's all there was to it."
I asked Ron how long after D-Day was it that the squadron moved from England to base itself in Europe, and he replied, "Oh, I thing it would have been getting onto about three months I'd think. We had to wait until the aerodrome was liberated."
Initially the squadron moved into an airfield at Amiens/Glisy, (B.48), in France. Whilst there they endured "Heavy snow, heavy, heavy snow," Ron remarks. He says of the airfield's facilities, "The buildings, there were several of them on the aerodrome, they were put up by the Germans. They were sticks, like teatree sticks, camouflaged, just to give the impression that it wasn't an airfield."
It was cold, a very. very cold winter there. And the engine covers had spouts going down, and they put kerosene heaters in there to keep the engines warm. they had -3 degrees of Fahrenheit, 35 degrees of frost!"
On the airfield the men lived in German pre-fabricated buildings, in relative comfort. "Before going there, we were under canvas. They put us under canvas in Britain to get us used to being in canvas. They only time we lived under canvas was when we were training," Ron laughs at the irony. "When we got to France, I was C.O. by then, and I got scouts out going round the countryside looking for German buildings. They were all prefabricated and they came to pieces, and any we got, we pinched and brang back. Those were used as sleeping quarters there."
They also had a commandeered Chateau to live in, as well as these prefab huts. "There were not enough beds in there because there were three squadrons there. It was down an imposing avenue, and the Chateau was a very big building. But the Germans had been there, and they'd subdivided all the rooms up, partitioned them to make small rooms, and it wasn't an ornate place at all."
They took over a town house in Amiens as a rest home too, "So the boys could go to town, and sleep the night there. A lovely house. We had put put an oil heater in there, with waste engine oil dripping on a hot plate."
As the C.O., Ron had another form of accomodation too, "My caravan. The central caravan was an office, and then you had a floor that let down and a roof let up, and you propped pipes in between it, and you wrapped canvas around. It made two little bedrooms. I used to sleep there a lot, rather than sleep back there in the Chateau. So I was on the job right down at the edge of the runway. But it was cold, and it was canvas wrapped around, and where it overlapped the fine snow would drift in. And I'd wake in the morning to a snow drift literally three feet deep, three feet high. And I had a jerrycan full of water. I had a kerosene heater but I couldn't leave it on all night otherwise I'd have been asphyxiated. So I'd switch it on, light it about six in the morning, put the jerrycan on top to melt enough water to get a little bit of water to shave with. And I'd put that in a little billy and get it hot for shaving."
The Battle of Arnhem, best remembered today thanks to the film A Bridge Too Far, was on of the most famous battles of the European war, and 488 (NZ) Sqn was involved. "We did a lot over Arnhem when that was on. Not that it made any difference, it was all pitch black down there - we couldn't see a thing!" Looking at his logbook he points out an entry, "Yeah, that's over Arnhem, over the bridgehead.... 'Coned by searchlights twice, much ground fighting'... That's when we moved to Holland."
Ron commanded No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, RAF until its disbandment in April 1945, and he finished the European war looking aftert Gilze Rijen airfield in Holland, which was a major fighter station and the final station from where 488 had operated. Also operating from that airfield was No. 485 (NZ) Squadron's Spitfires.
"When the war finished we disbanded the squadron, and I took over the job of second-in-command of the airfield. And as soon as the war finished, all the permanent RAF fellows were rushing around, organising soft jobs for themselves. And this fellow who was running the airfield got himself a job down in the south of France - it sounded pretty good to me. So I became head of the airfield, the C.O. of the airfield."
Ron was Mentioned in Despatches twice for his efforts in the war.
When he returned to New Zealand by troopship, he came back in the same cabin as the chap he'd shared a cabin with on the way over! Amazing after all that time.
To read a little more about No. 488 (NZ) Squadron, see here:
New Zealanders With The Royal Air Force Volume II (Text Online)
And for a much more indepth history, you can try to track down the squadron's official history, entitled Defence Until Dawn by Les Hunt (1949). Hunt was the squadron's Intelligence Officer. The book is difficult to track down and very rare, but your local library might be able to track a copy down from the National Library of New Zealand
|See Ron Watts' Flying Career Here