Saturday 1st January 1944
"Rang in the New Year well and truly on the ship’s bell.
Nearly all the officers and ratings were in various stages of inebriation.
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 old.
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 though.
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.
Hastings 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.
H.M.S. Spurwing 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:
"Incidentally, Spurwing 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 sickness."
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. Rowlands
Front Row: F. Knowlden, G Quick, S/Ldr Munby, D. Bell, A Hutchinson.
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.