• My First Operation

With years of sea-faring experience, Sgt “Bill” Bailey arrives in Cairo in 1942 as a new recruit to the R.A.F., hoping to fulfill a lifelong ambition to fly. Within hours of arrival he is sent aboard a Vickers Wellington on a bombing mission that rapidly turns from success to danger, culminating in a disaster from which he is the only survivor.

Against all odds, he emerges relatively unscathed from days of isolation in the desert. His ensuing wartime experiences use up several more of his nine lives on other bombing raids and unusual posts, where he always has to learn something new, often at high speed in unusual circumstances.

What follows is an excerpt from Alone I Fly, written by Bill Bailey himself and available here for $22.70US. This direct and honest account of a true experience vividly conveys the extraordinary dangers to which servicemen in World War Two were exposed. Above all, the understated narrative tells the story of a modest, humorous man coming to terms with having to learn to cope as best he can when suddenly subjected to intense pressure in the most life-and-death situations. Bill died after a prolonged illness on July 23, 2007.

The air crackled with tension as the air-crews entered the shabby dusty tent that was being used for briefing. As we filed in, each of us tackled our fear in our own way, some of us turning within ourselves, walking like zombies, stumbling over guy-ropes, as with tight lips we thought about our loved ones at home; others talked incessantly in a loud nervous way, and yet others laughed raucously over unfunny stories. I was among them, a boy who had more reason than the others to be afraid; for it would be my first operation against the enemy. I could feel the tension in the air as the other air-crews sat, each occupying their own collapsible bench, waiting for the briefing to start.

Suddenly, as one man, a crew stood up, and the tail-gunner, sitting at the end, was thrown to the floor as the counterbalancing weight of his crew members was removed. A gale of laughter passed through the crowd at this ridiculous childhood prank. Any weak joke, any prep-school action seemed enough to lighten the atmosphere.

And yet this all brought back memories to me of a time when I was once again frightened. It was my first day on the training ship Warspite.

We had finished scrubbing the upper deck with bare feet and cold Thames water and came down to the mess deck for breakfast. Two boys were told to go to the galley to fetch the meal. They soon brought back two mess tins and a huge teapot, and so it wasn’t long before we were all tucking in. A few minutes passed and then there was a crack and three of us boys found ourselves sprawling on the deck as the bench collapsed from underneath us. A roar of laughter from the rest of the boys greeted us as, embarrassed, we fixed the bench again.

A hush fell over the audience as a procession of senior officers made their way to the front.
“Any bets it’s Tobruk,” whispered the wireless op as we all stood up. There was a rustle as half a dozen air-crews balanced their weight once again upon the shaky seats.

I watched with interest as the officers climbed up on to the ramshackle platform made of tables. A little man with the four rings of a group captain waited impatiently for the noise of the platform party to cease, and then he looked at the air-crews who were still chuckling over the discomfort of their tail-gunner. I felt a dislike for this man, who seemed so full of his own importance.

“The programme tonight,” he said eventually, “is similar to last night. I’ve been informed that a heavy build-up of forces is threatening in the Tobruk area, and we must do everything we can to stop it.”

There were no smiles or chuckles now. The marquee was silent and still while the distant roar of an engine under test built up to a crescendo before dying away. I could sense the atmosphere, even though I did not know that Tobruk had more defences per square yard than Berlin.

“I know,” went on the group captain in his bumptious way, “that some of you took a pasting last night. Well,” he shrugged his shoulders, “we must expect it. I think that’s all… Oh no, I nearly forgot: crew of P for Peter should be congratulated, damn fine show…” All this was over my head, although it did remind me of the Headmaster’s assembly at school, when the football team were congratulated by a Head who really did not give a damn.

“No, I’ll leave all the details to your Flight Commander. Good luck, chaps, and keep a cool head.” He jumped down into the sand and stomped away.

Was it my imagination, or was there really a look of irritation upon the face of the Flight Commander as he moved forward? I watched as he pinned up a strange map drawn upon a grid of concentric circles. The easel was designed to be kept stable by a length of rope, but this had disappeared long ago and so it slowly began to do the splits He paused, pulled the easel up to its full height and started again.

“We are operating against Tobruk and so the target map is the same as last night. There is only one slight difference. You don’t need me to tell you that this target is very hot.”

He paused and looked around. Was I imagining that his gaze lingered a little in different parts of the tent?

“To make it a little easier, we have organised a blitz period. At 6 minutes past 3 I want all crews to make their run at the same time. This should help, for they cannot concentrate on more than one aircraft at a time. 50 squadron and 106 will be operating, and as this means that eighteen aircraft will be in the area, a good look-out must be maintained at all times. 125 squadron will be at 15,000 feet to give you fighter cover.”

“Lot of good that will be,” grunted the gunner on my left.

“Bombing height will be the usual 6,000, and all aircraft will do one photo run after bombing. Are there any questions?” No one answered, so the Flight Commander continued. “Take-off time, 22:45. All crews to be at readiness and engines tested by 22:13. Order of take-off will be alphabetical: Apple, George, Johnnie, Sugar, X-ray. You have already been assigned to aircraft.” He sat down and his place was taken by the tall, bony figure of the Engineering Officer.

“All aircraft,” he started, “have been filled with 90% fuel load, which should be plenty for this run. With a 4,000-pound bomb, that should give you a maximum altitude of around 6,500. You have all tested your aircraft. Remember to sign the Form 700 before take-off. Oh, and there is one further point…”

He paused and looked at the Flight Commander, who gave a slight nod: “Can I ask you to stop pissing on the tyres of the aircraft?”

Grins appeared everywhere, much to his annoyance.

“You may think it is funny, but the urine is having a serious effect upon the rubber. You can remember what happened to B-for-Bertie when a tyre burst on take-off.”

The audience was hushed. They were only too aware of the hole in the sand, and the ingots of molten aluminium.

The next to appear was the Met officer. Aussie, our wireless op, leaned forward. Holding his hand over his mouth, he attracted my attention.

“Now he’ll tell us all about his big toe.”

By this time the Met man had pinned up his collection of synoptic charts and was rapidly explaining the weather situation.

“Wind at 6,000 will be 035, 10 knots. All other winds will be available to navigators later. And so, in conclusion, gentlemen, may I remind you that approaching low pressure will cause your altimeters to over-read. Remember stratus cloud is coming in thick from the south and may very well reach here by tomorrow. This, incidentally, is confirmed by my big toe, for today it has begun to ache.”

There were polite smiles everywhere but most were too wrapped up in their own thoughts to be worried about his big toe.

The last person to speak was the Intelligence officer, who explained at length the details of the target, the alterations in the defences and the spine-chilling statistics of the amount of anti-aircraft defence we would encounter.

“To end, may I remind you that in case of an accident always keep your parachute; and above all, make certain that you always have your goolie chit.”

As we filed out of the marquee, I kept close behind my captain. “What’s a goolie chit?”

“It’s a card written in four or five Arabic languages explaining that you are an important member of the forces of the white king across the sea, and that if anything happens to you, then the white king across the sea will have their guts for garters.” [Click to enlarge.]

“But why is it called a goolie chit?”

“Because natives around here have a nasty habit of cutting off the testicles of any prisoner. They add them to the stew, you know; airman’s balls are the main delicacy.”

“You’re pulling my leg,” I said nervously. “Have you known it happen to anyone?

“Only once, and then the chap was accused of rape. Still if you haven’t got one, you’d better see the brains department and they will issue you with one. See you later, and then we’ll take the crew-bus together.”

The time seemed to drag and the hands of my watch seemed to be quite still during the hours after briefing, but gradually the time went and I joined Frenchie and the two gunners for the pre-flight check. Aussie was away attending a wireless briefing and Roy was hidden away working on his flight plan. I watched as Frenchie checked the Form 700 with the corporal while the gunners loaded their twin Brownings. I strolled underneath the aircraft and studied with interest the great yawning gap in the black plane’s stomach. I stood to one side as the ugly great bomb was wheeled into position, and joined Frenchie who was studying a repair that had been done to the Pitot head.

“What’s she like aerodynamically when that great hole is open to the slipstream?

“Not a great deal of difference,” said Frenchie, as he moved an aileron to and fro. “She becomes a little nose-heavy perhaps, but when we drop the bomb we lift vertically for about 500 feet.”

I noticed that the normal bomb-beam had been removed, and that the seeming collection of oil drums was being winched up by a cable around its centre of gravity. It was a bit crude, I thought, as I watched the armourer winding it into place. I looked up to find Frenchie had climbed into the cockpit, and so I continued my idle tour of inspection by strolling under the front turret. As I looked up, I could see the gunner sitting in his perspex bubble 15 feet above me. I watched as the gunner rotated the barrels of the twin Brownings to test for the full range of movement, and I wondered if it was true that the average life of an air-gunner really was 6 weeks on ops. Certainly these two had lasted longer than that, as they were nearly time-expired. They must be either clever or, as they put it, damn lucky.

We all met again in the dining marquee. Supper was the only good thing of the night. Most of us were not very hungry, and the meal was a quiet, subdued affair. We stayed there having a last cigarette until the crew bus took us to the crew room.

Carefully I emptied my pockets, placing all my personal effects in my locker. I then checked that I had my new goolie chit, and anything else that would be useful if I met the enemy.
Many others did a similar thing, I discovered; why, even Frenchie kept a sheath knife tucked in the top of his sock, probably a souvenir of his life in Canada. The aircraft at readiness were in dispersal bays over a large area and the crew bus was working overtime. Some of the air-crews stood outside having a last cigarette and watching the jeep moving slowly across the airfield, while the controller for the night switched on each individual light for the flare-path.

“It’s a job I’ve always wanted,” I overheard, “The one belonging to the chap at home who lights all the red lights around a hole in the road and then sits all night in a hut warming himself with a coke-burning stove.”

“Not much future in that.”

“You think there is in this?”

The speaker dropped his cigarette, stood on it, and walked into the crew-room.

Meanwhile, Roy the navigator had just finished his flight-plan and was checking his equipment. Charts, maps, star tables, Met forecast, two pencils, two dividers, rubber, encoding machine, and sextant were all there. He rammed them all into his hold-all and for a moment looked through the flap of the tent.

A flurry of wind whipped up the sand and set the guy-ropes rattling against the canvas. If everything went well we should be back by five in the morning. Sky, he thought, was clear, air stable; there should be no difficulty over astro. Arcturus was ideal for a 90-degree position-line.

However, Tobruk was a target that filled everyone with dread. Rarely did the squadron escape without some casualties. Yet it was easy to ignore it, or to pretend to ignore it. After all, we went off one aircraft at a time and we came back one at a time – or we didn’t. There were always these empty places in the mess, always the same excuse, but everyone knew that chalk marks in the control room at Group had recorded the disappearance. Sometimes over the target they would see a Wimp falling earthwards, a plume of flame streaming from the fuselage, but it was best not to think of such things. After all, it would never happen to them. Frenchie was an inspired pilot. He could throw the plane around like a Tiger Moth, and he had an original mind that always came up with something.

Roy’s mind wandered to the latest member of the crew. There was something about him that reminded him of home. He was young, and innocent, and with his spotty face he was like so many of his pupils at home. He remembered the old stone buildings of Graythorpe Grammar School. [Bill's class shown below.]

Well, he had done his best to keep things going. More and more of the staff were called up until it was inevitable that it would be his turn soon. That was why he had joined the R.A.F. After all, if he had to leave his wife and children, then it was better to volunteer. Forcing himself to face the present, he picked up the bulging hold-all and joined the young novice outside. [Bill's wife, below, met on active service.]

“What say to walking out? Our aircraft is only just over there.”

As we strolled along, I helped Roy carry his gear.

“Are you frightened?” he enquired.

“A bit.”

“Don’t worry; you’ll be all right with us.”

The others had walked ahead. When they arrived at the aircraft, it was obvious to me that something was wrong.

“It’s all right, Frenchie, for him to say that,” moaned Nipper the gunner, “but things won’t be the same if we don’t.”

“That’s just a superstition,” retorted the Canadian.

“You’ve been the first to remind us in the past.”

“Tell you what,” drawled Aussie, “can’t we go through the motions without actually using the wheel?”

“Good idea,” said Frenchie, quick to realise the possibility of a compromise, “we’ll use the starboard wing. Come on, crew – form a straight line with Nipper outboard.”

I had no real idea as to what was going on, but the others were quick to catch on. Nipper walked to the wing-tip, followed in turn by Nipper the front gunner.

“It won’t be the same,” he grumbled, shaking his head, “it just won’t be the same.”

“Of course it will,” said Roy, throwing the weight of his maturity on to his skipper’s argument.
“I’ll stand next to you – and Bill, you next. About 2 yards apart should do it.”

Slowly the line formed up under the huge wing. The corporal fitter sat on the starter trolley and watched to see what was going on.

“Right, men,” shouted Frenchie, “Atten-tion.” The crew jumped to attention as far as their parachutes would allow.

“On the command ‘Go,’ you release your parachutes.”

“One, two, three, go.”

As one man, they brought their right hands over to snap the quick release buckle.

“One pace forward march. On the command ‘two’, you will take another step forward. On ‘three’ you will open your flies, and on ‘four’, you will present your prick for inspection. Pissing by numbers, begin.”

Like airmen on parade they shouted, “One, pause two, pause three, pause four.” Timing their actions as Frenchie had instructed.

“Good men, good, now piss.”

I found I could urinate as well as the others. Perhaps it was the tension.

Meanwhile the Corporal sat on the trolley grinning. Still, he’d seen this sort of ritual before. If they thought it helped, then good luck to them. Rather them than me, he reflected, thinking of his drinks in the N.A.A.F.I..

“O.K. men, chutes on,” ordered Frenchie, “Its time we were aboard.”

As second pilot, I was the last to enter the plane. I watched as, one by one, they climbed up the five aluminium rungs to disappear into the bowels of the aircraft. I knew exactly what I would discover. I knew that the ladder went up through the floor into the cockpit, and that if I were to walk toward the tail, then I would pass the navigator’s table and the wireless op’s chair.

Poor Aussie, he had to face forward with his head only inches from the brightly coloured knobs of his radio. Going further aft meant clambering over the main beam that took the weight of the wings, and entering rather an empty section with a camp bed, a chemical toilet, and a chute for photoflashes. There was a window on either side here which at one time, I believed, had been used for gun positions. Now, with the goedetic construction breaking up the perspex into diamond panes, it gave the place an almost arty-crafty look.

The front gunner, I knew, would have to crawl forward, while the captain and I would sit at the controls above the entrance hatch, which when closed formed part of the bomb-aimer’s position.

I followed Frenchie up the ladder. Why did all aeroplanes smell the same? It was an odd smell of oil and plastic that was common to every aircraft in the world. Carefully I pulled up the ladder and closed the hatch. Now we were ready to start.

From where I was sitting I could see over the starboard wing, with the round cowl of the Pegasus engine jutting out from the leading edge. I gazed across at the other Wimpies, their propellers beginning to move in a staccato fashion, as each cylinder went into compression at top dead centre.

Frenchie had his oxygen mask unclipped at the side and was shouting through the window at the corporal below.

“Brakes on, switches off,” he shouted, starting the usual litany of procedure.

“Contact,” he cried, as he pressed the starter button with one hand and flicking up the two ignition switches with the other, making the engine roar into life.

“Contact starboard,” he repeated and soon the propeller on my side became a blur of movement. The corporal unhitched the starter cable and moved it to a safe distance while the Wimp’s engines ticked over, until the oil temperature and pressure seemed correct.
Then there came the chance to escape. Roy and Aussie looked over my shoulder at the trembling instruments. Would there be a big rev drop at this last moment? If there was, then the operation would be cancelled and we could sleep safely in our beds for another night.

Frenchie leaned forward, adjusted the throttle friction nut and carefully increased the revs of the port engine. I knew that each engine had two ignition systems complete with their own sets of sparking plugs, and each set controlled by its own ignition switch. The needle of the rev counter moved upward and the roar of the engine increased. At 1000 revs, Frenchie took his hand from the throttle and reached for the ignition switches. Who would not run away if a chance was given? Frenchie operated one switch: there was no drop in revs, so he switched it back on and then tried the other. The engine still roared away as if nothing had happened. Quietly, he throttled back and repeated with the other engine. The others lost interest, and returned to their stations while Frenchie the captain clipped on his mask, switched on the R.T., and called Control.

“Hello Caesar, hello Caesar, S-for-Sugar ready and clear to taxi from dispersal? Over.”

“Hello, Sugar – you may taxi to Control. Direction of take-off 32, Q.F.E. 004. Over.”

“Hello Caesar, S-for-Sugar, wilco, over and out.”

He switched back to intercom.

“O.K. you shower, we’re on our way.”

He waved the chocks away and glanced to right and left. The corporal was right ahead by this time, and by following his instructions the Wimp slowly swung round to point its nose at the black-and-white chequered control hut parked on the perimeter.

We bumped our way over the sand as the other aircraft took off in a steady stream.

“Flash S for Sugar on the downward indent,” ordered Frenchie. I leaned forward and tapped the three flashes.

I had always been fascinated by flare-paths. They seemed to go on, and on, to the very horizon, where lines of lights slowly converged with perspective. I turned my attention to Frenchie, who was doing his pre-flight check. Pitch, flaps, throttle control nut, direction indicator on nought, and brakes hard on. Slowly but surely he opened both throttles until the whole plane shook and vibrated as the roaring engines strained against the locked-on brakes.

“Here we go boys, say goodbye to Leicester Square.”

He released the brakes, and the plane jumped forward like a carthorse released from its shafts. I hoped it wouldn’t develop the simile too closely by suddenly rolling over. Soon we were bouncing over the ruts as the lights of the flare-path began to fly by.

I am sure we were all scared. The moment of take-off, particularly with a 4,000-pounder, was fraught with danger. I clenched my hands until my knuckles were white as the plane seemed to take over with a life of its own. The tail was up and there was that strange unstable feel, when suddenly there was a roar and everything disappeared in fog. Many times I had taken off in my short career, but never before had I lost visibility at 90 mph. It was like racing at night with no brakes, and then hitting a bank of fog. All sense of direction left me. Were we on the flare-path, and above all did we have enough speed to become airborne? In a flash, I remembered the post-man saying that once we took off with that sort of bomb there was no turning back. I sat frozen with horror.

As suddenly as it had fogged, so the visibility returned, the vibration ceased and Frenchie, hiding his relief, leaned forward and selected “Undercarriage Up”. As in a nightmare, I watched the little green lights turn to red as the wheels came up to lock in the fuselage.

“What the hell happened?” cried Aussie.

Frenchie looked at me and pointed downwards. I looked down between my legs and was astonished to see the lights of the outer circle shining through a hole. There was nothing but five hundred feet of air between my seat and the darkened landscape.

“You didn’t close the hatch properly; you could have killed us all, you silly bastard. Better get down and shut it and make certain it’s properly closed or we may fall out.”

My face red with shame, I unstrapped myself and carefully closed the hatch. When I finally plugged in again to the intercom I heard the cries of protest from the rest of the crew. I looked around and noticed that the throttle assembly was covered in fine yellow sand. Had I looked behind me I would have seen Roy emptying the sand from his charts and books, while Aussie was blowing it from beneath his morse key.

Later that night, while I was sitting in the captain’s seat concentrating upon my direction indicator, the compass and the artificial horizon, I had time to think. To think that carelessness upon my part had brought us to the brink of disaster, saved only by the experience of Frenchie who could lift the aircraft off blindfold, and by feel alone. I glanced at the muffled figure to my left and wondered whether I too would soon be like that.


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