"Rang in the New Year well and truly on the ship’s
Nearly all the officers and ratings were in various stages
The first lieutenant vainly trying to drink someone’s health
from a bottle with the top still on.
Foul taste in mouth this morning due to excess of port wine."
That's what my dad (Norman Buckle) wrote in his diary on New
Year's Day 1944. He was stationed at H.M.S. Spurwing, the Royal Navy Air Base
at Hastings, near Freetown in Sierra Leone, West Africa. He was nineteen years
This photo was in Norman's collection; he hasn't made clear whether or not it's the New
Year's Eve celebrations. Looks like it was a fun night
Considering that high temperatures and humidity made a
posting to Freetown very unpopular with services personnel they look like
they're making the best of it!
Freetown was surrounded by malarial mangrove
swamps and the humidity was so high that if a pair of shoes was lost underneath
a bed, in a week the shoes would be covered with mildew.
Norman was a Radio Mechanic in the Fleet Air Arm who'd joined
up in August 1942. He'd been sent on various training courses before being
shipped out to West Africa in October 1943.
By that stage in World War II Freetown had become a
significant place in the war effort. Freetown was (and remains) the capital and largest city of
Sierra Leone. It had the third largest natural harbour in the world.
During World War II, Freetown was crucial in the
convoy route from Britain to
South Africa, India and Australia. The base served a total
of thirty two different convoy routes. It was home to large warships of the
Royal Navy, destroyer escorts and submarines. The ocean off the West Coast of
Africa was a hunting ground for German submarines.
was fifteen miles east of Freetown and an aerodrome had been constructed
there from which Fleet Air Arm planes operated. 710 Squadron was formed in August 1939
as a seaplane squadron searching for U boats attacking convoys and commercial
shipping. Later, 777 Squadron was formed at Hastings on 1st August 1941 as a fleet
requirements unit. It had a small number of Swordfish aircraft to which
Defiants and Walruses were added in 1942. Throughout 1943 the squadron was
responsible for the air defence of Sierra Leone.
was a shore base which had been hacked out of the bush at Hastings, near
Freetown. It was commissioned
in March 1943 and had capacity for eighty four aircraft. According to
his service record, Norman's job at H.M.S.
Spurwing was A.S.U. (Aircraft Storage Unit) Maintenance.
Later in his diary Norman recorded:
has two functions – a squadron for anti-submarine work, and a storage depot for
naval aircraft; so that a carrier coming in with its planes shot up, can remain
in Freetown and be completely refitted from Spurwing."
When I was researching the background to my dad's diary I
found out that the Radio Mechanic's job was to remove the aircraft's heavy
radio set for testing and repair and then after re-placing the radio set in the
aircraft go on a test flight to check the radio was working properly.
In April 1944, Norman recorded:
"Went in H.S. 599 on Radar test with Dick doing a W/T
[Wireless Telegraphy] test at the same time.
Felt some nasty quakes when the pilot went into a corkscrew
dive over the harbour but otherwise unimportant. Pleased to write that I am no longer troubled by air
This photograph is the Radio Section of H.M.S. Spurwing.
Norman wrote the names of the men in his photo book:
Back Row: J. Ridgway, A. Jones, N. Buckle, C. Perry, W.
Front Row: F. Knowlden, G Quick, S/Ldr Munby, D. Bell, A
I don't know what happened to them. As I explained in the
introduction to I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety, Norman never really
talked about his war-time experiences. When we were young my sisters and I were never very interested in what he'd been doing what seemed like
years before. By the time we were interested our dad was no longer around to
answer our questions. His diary is all that remains to tell us about that period
in his life when he left a coal mining village in South Yorkshire to live and
work for over a year in equatorial Africa.
By the end of 1944, Norman was back home again but it wasn't long before he was sent off on his next voyage - to a tiny island in the Pacific Ocean as part of the British Pacific Fleet.
Happy New Year and best wishes for 2014 to all readers of I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety Ebook and Blog.
If you would like to see all the photographs for I Think I Prefer the Tinned Variety in one array, they're at Spurwing ebooks. Just follow the link and scroll down the page.
Thanks for stopping by my blog. If you read with a Kindle, iPad, Kobo, Nook, iPhone you can get a free copy of Julia's Room by Michael Murray at any of the main ebook retailers. There are some links here if you're interested.
Hope you have a Very Happy Christmas and see you again in 2014.
Last time I posted on this Blog I mentioned I was trying to
get hold of a copy of Ponam - A Base of the Forgotten Fleet by Harry J Bannister and that Waterstones were on the case
trying to fulfil my order. Unfortunately, they sent an email the other day to
say the book was unavailable. I've looked on Ebay and on a couple of specialist book-sites and there's no sign of it there either; so I suppose that's that.
I'm disappointed because I thought the book might have a really full account of
what went on on Ponam Island in 1945.
My dad didn't write much in his diary once he got there and
afterwards he told a relative they all thought they were going to die so I
don't suppose writing about it was very high on his priority list at the time.
During the 1950s when we were growing up, our dad never talked about his
war-time experiences and we weren't all that interested anyway. Sadly he died
when he was in his mid-fifties and now we do want to know what happened to a member of our
family in a by-gone age, he's not here to tell us.
From time to time I call in at a fascinating website forum
called World War Two Talk where you can look in on some of the veterans talking
about their experiences (and join in the conversation as well if you wish).
It's interesting how many people of my generation (baby-boomers) and younger
are trying to piece together the story of their relatives' war-time activities
and understand it better.
I'm reading an extraordinary book at the moment about
conflict between China and Japan in the late 1930s. It's entitled Shanghai 1937:Stalingrad on the Yangtze by Peter Harmsen. I've borrowed it from my local
public library and re-newed it several times. It's fascinating and very well
researched but not easy reading. The book describes one of the great forgotten
battles of the 20th century which at its height involved nearly a million
Chinese and Japanese soldiers and countless civilians. The author contends that
the Battle of Shanghai was a dress rehearsal for World War II - or even the
inaugural act in the war. You can check it out at Waterstones if you're interested and unlike my Ponam book this one is in stock and they say
it ships in 24 hours.