Remembering the Telegraphist Air Gunners
Eric Ronald May - Telegraphist Air Gunner Fleet Air Arm Royal Navy Wartime Memories Eric May was the tenth child of his parents. He was born in January 1925 some seven years after the last child was born. At that time the family was living at Beatrice Road, Margate. “Weighing some five pounds my first war was one of survival against all the children’s diseases prevalent at that time; measles, German measles, diphtheria, whooping cough, croup and others; poverty caused by doctors’ and medicine bills; and also against the teasing by my six older brothers and sister. When much older I learned that a brother and sister had died early after birth during the first world war. Such a large family, I suppose, was natures way of replacing the millions of armed service personnel who perished during the 1914 – 1918 war and preparation for future wars.” “I had very little schooling up to the age of ten years due to poor health. Fortunately, a new school was built at Canterbury Road Westgate-on-Sea and opened in 1938. It was named King Ethelbert Central School and I was admitted to class 2-1 on the opening day. From this day onward it was a period I believe was later referred to by Sir Winston Churchill as ‘The Gathering Storm’, as early in 1939 a number of students aged sixteen years and above evacuated from Austria and Germany joined our classes. Also at this time air-raid shelters were constructed in the grounds at the rear of the school. A fellow pupil and I were given the responsibility to test the field telephones installed in the shelters. What a privilege – each morning during school time we were allowed to carry out the tests”. On the September 3, 1939 the May family gathered round the radio and listened to Neville Chamberlain informing the British nation that the country was at war with Germany. The siren sounded and they all went outside to look up at the sky. “As we learned from future air raids this was not a wise thing to do.” In January 1940 it was rumoured that the school Eric attended was going to be evacuated to Staffordshire possibly in the next couple of months. “This was a place I did not want to visit at that time. I had to try my hardest to convince my parents that it was the right time to leave school, get a job and in some small way contribute to the family finances.” Eventually, he obtained permission to leave school and was employed to train as a radio repairer and worked in the basement of Messrs .Thornton Bobby’s shop in Northdown Road, Cliftonville, Margate. The company sold radios, musical instruments, sheet music and gramophone records. His first duties were the re-charging of accumulators and delivering them weekly to customers many of who were armed service personnel billeted in the area. “During the evacuation of Dunkirk at the end of May 1940 some thousands of troops were landed at the end of Margate Pier and were marched, limped or carried along Margate sea front to the railway station in various states of disarray, weary and hungry. The following week after the evacuation had been completed I was to experience a further horror and effect of war. It was the funeral of some of the valiant men who had died after landing at Margate. At the age of just fifteen my only experience of death was of a brother who died at the early age of 17 years in 1935. His funeral was dignified and his coffin was conveyed to the cemetery in a highly polished hearse. Not so the troops who had died in the defence of our country. I stood on Margate sea front near the clock tower and I first saw the military funeral procession lead by a band of pipers playing a slow march. I next saw something I have not forgotten or ever will ... a number of builders lorries, each carrying a number of coffins of the fallen. I cried.” In June 1940, due to a down turn in business Eric’s services at Thorton Bobby’s his employment was terminated and the Battle of Britain in the air begun. He volunteered to join the Auxiliary Fire Service as a Messenger Boy. During the following three years he had three narrow escapes. In November 1941 a German night Stuker dive-bombing attack struck a house in Canterbury Road, Margate (near Hussar Pub). The Stuker was sturdy, accurate, and very effective against ground targets. On a second occasion, in the summer of 1942 three German fighter planes came in low over Pegwell Bay, strafed Manston aerodrome and continued firing as they flew low down Brooke Avenue and Maynard Avenue Garlinge. Eric was about to enter the front garden gate of his house, when a house nearby was hit. Finally, in June 1943, at eighteen, just before he was leaving to join the Fleet Air Arm as a Telegraphist Air Gunner he was about to take lunch in a room at the Royal School for Deaf and Dumb children when a bomb exploded in the next building. There had been no air raid warning. I saw how war affected families, including my own.” Eric was seventeen in April, 1942 a shy young man when he first met Cecily, daughter of a fireman, and the girl that six years later would become his wife. What little time they had together was spent walking on Margate promenade talking about what they would do when the war was over. But, the events of the war prevailed over their new romance and he feared he would lose her. I was shy, and knowing words might fail me, I wanted to find a record of Glenn Miller’s ‘Moonlight Serenade’ and give it to her. She would listen to the words and I would win her heart.” The local music store had no copy and could not get one. At eighteen, they went their separate ways. Eric joined the Royal Navy and Cecily joined the Women’s Land Army. HMS St Vincent in Gosport, followed basic training at HMS Royal Arthur, Skegness, Lincolnshire. Eric was sent to East Camp in Yarmouth, Nova Scotia for nine months training on Telegraphist Air Gunner course 59a. We arrived in Halifax at the beginning of January 1944, having crossed the Atlantic on the SS Île de France without escort and in atrocious weather. Then we travelled to East Camp, Yarmouth by train” “It was cold. They gave us funny hats with flaps. You come here from England and you think, I'm not wearing those hats but when we got up in the morning we were glad we had those and anything else we could put on." “Being in Canada did not seem right to me at that time as I had one brother fighting in the North Africa landings, another having spent ten days and nights in an open rowing boat after having been torpedoed in the Atlantic, another one having been invalided out of the Royal Navy in 1940 and at home with my parents who were on the receiving end of Hitler’s V1s and V2s. “It seems strange to me now that as a Fire service messenger based in Margate, three times I nearly came to grief and then to end up in the peaceful town of Yarmouth for nine months. It was nice. But it was also very different. Before coming to Canada was the most dangerous period in my life. They didn't play fair, the Germans. They used to come across the Channel, straight down our road and I would be standing there and they would open fire. When I came to East Camp one of the seniors said to me, ‘Everything all right back home?’. I thought, Oh God if you only knew. I always felt it was my reward to come to Yarmouth." While in Yarmouth, Eric found and purchased the record of ‘Moonlight Serenade’. In fact, during the nine months he purchased nine records, one each month. “The twelve records I purchased in Yarmouth in 1944 included Spike Jones, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Bob Crosby, Woody Herman, Harry James, Glen Miller, Lionel Hampton, and the Andrew Sisters, together with an album in which they are kept.” “I was so shy, but the people of Yarmouth, when I reflect back, they were the most generous people you could find. Up on the notice board there were names, addresses, telephone numbers of people inviting you to contact them to go stay for a weekend and I never did. I didn't have the courage. That is one of my biggest regrets.” Just days before the conclusion of his training course at East Camp in Yarmouth Eric served as part of an honour guard at the burial of four leading airmen from East Camp who died during training when two aircraft collided on Oct. 20, 1944. At the end of October 1944 Eric together with the other Telegraphist Air Gunners of Course 59a were transfered to Moncton, New Brunswick to await a ship to return to England. He received a few days leave at home in England before he was required to return to Lee-on-Solent. He did not get to see Cecily. before he departed for Ceylon as she was stationed in Ashford when he returned to England from Canada. “I did carry the nine records with me from Yarmouth and left them with his father in Margate. I left the records at home only to receive a letter with the news that my father had picked them up, upside down, and all had crashed to the floor. Not a problem, he wrote, all were in good shape except for one of the records, ‘Moonlight Serenade’.” In early 1945 Eric was posted to India. I wasn’t in a Squadron. I was a replacement TAG sent to India to attach to a Squadron when I got there.” Once there he was moved around but where he was located any serious hostilities had ended. He was eventually assigned to 742 Naval Air Squadron (742 NAS). They had one aircraft with two pilots he was the only TAG. There was no gunner as it was a transport plane. An Expeditor, the plane was smaller than a DC3. “All the luggage went in the nose and had five bucket seats carrying passengers as required between India and Ceylon. All I did was communicate when we flew between India and Ceylon. There was no fear of the enemy” In July 1946, Eric returned to England and to civilian life. Cecily hadn’t forgotten him and he received a letter from her while he was serving in India. When he returned to England in 1946 he and Cecily resumed their romance. “But, I needed a job, and the deck chair collector position, offered by the local Labour Exchange did not seem secure enough for what I had in mind.” He returned to the National Fire Service and in 1948 to the newly formed Kent Fire Brigade. After six years of waiting he and Cecily were married.
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Eric May had served as part of an honour guard at the burial of the four leading airmen from East Camp who died during training when two aircraft collided on October 20, 1944. Sixty-one-years later, in 2004, he returned to Yarmouth to visit the graves of leading airmen Albert Brooks, Henry Taylor, John Bennett and Raymond Stanier, in the Yarmouth Mountain Town Cemetery and placed crosses at their headstones. During that visit to Yarmouth he also visited the site of East Camp, The Yarmouth Airport East Camp display, and the Yarmouth Museum. In 2007, Eric May performed with the cast of Tragedy and Triumph on stage in Portsmouth, and in Deal, Kent, UK He serves as First Honorary Board Member of the Wartime Heritage Association Links:
Additional Photos (click to enlarge)
Ceylon 1945
Visit to Mountain Cemetery 2005
Yarmouth Airport (East Camp Display)
East Camp Site
Yarmouth Museum