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U3A Writing: First Flight

…“Oh you can sit on your kit bags,” was the reply. “It will be better than sitting on the cold metal. You can dangle your legs over the edge there.”

As our eyes got used to the dim light we realised that we were sitting with our legs dangling into the bomb bays of the Liberator…

John Ricketts’s first flight was a long way from being comfortable.

I had been in the Air Force for about two months. I had done my six weeks’ initial training, been given two weeks leave only to be recalled after ten days and told to report to an RAF station in Norfolk. I reported in and was told that I had been posted overseas and would be flying out the next day.

The Flight Sergeant’s advice was, “Go and have a few drinks at the local tonight. You don’t know when you’ll next have the chance.”

How true that was!

The next day eight of us were paraded and marched to the stores where almost all our gear was taken from us. We were told that it was to reduce weight and that we would be kitted out at our destination. Nobody seemed to know where we were going, or if they did they did not tell us.

In the afternoon we were assembled dressed as we had been ordered - greatcoat, scarf and gloves. The know-all in the party said “I told you so. We’re going to Iceland. That’s why we’re dressed like this.”

It was a murky day, the kind when the sun doesn’t come out at all. In the mid afternoon we were marched to the airstrip. We looked around for our transport plane but there was none. The only thing in sight was a huge bomber which know-all pronounced as a Liberator. To our surprised we were marched up to it and ordered to climb the little ladder into its belly. We were directed in two columns of four to either side of a hole in floor and told to sit.

“What do we sit on?” someone asked.

“Oh you can sit on your kit bags,” was the reply. “It will be better than sitting on the cold metal. You can dangle your legs over the edge there.”

As our eyes got used to the dim light we realised that we were sitting with our legs dangling into the bomb bays of the Liberator. There was a crack along the centre where it opened to release the bombs and we were sitting on the hinges which allowed this to happen.

The crew were dressed entirely in sheepskins, from flying boots , through trousers and jackets to fleecy helmets. It wasn’t long before we realised why. Our feet got cold first, then the chill climbed out legs. Soon our backsides were numb. We banged hands together with no effect. Soon we were almost frozen stiff.

Know-all said, “ I told you we were going to Iceland.’’

After about two hours one of the crew appeared with a vacuum flask and gave us each a mug of hot, sweet, milky tea. I’m sure that drink saved our lives.

“Where are we going sir?”

He was only a sergeant but that mug of tea was worth a bit of flattery.

“Don’t you know? We’re going to Castel Benito. We’ll be there in another couple of hours.”

That left us none the wiser. We had never heard of the place and it didn’t sound like Iceland. Eventually the sergeant came back to us and told us that we were preparing to land.

“Grab hold of something,” he advised. “This strip was never meant for Liberators. It’s much too bumpy and much too short.”

We came down and hit the runway quite hard, bounced and then the plane smoothed out. We breathed a sigh of relief and started to relax our grips. Suddenly the plane slewed and came to a stop. The crewman had been right, the landing strip had been too short and we had run off the end into the sand which had stopped us.

We climbed down the ladder into the sand, hardly able to stand on our frozen feet. We looked round and in the lights of the airfield we saw that everyone was wearing khaki shorts and shirts and that the temperature was in the seventies. We certainly weren’t in Iceland, We were in Libya.

A truck picked us up and took us to the camp where we were given hot sweet tea and gradually thawed out. So ended my first flight.


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