Remembering the Telegraphist Air Gunners
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Wartime Heritage                                   ASSOCIATION
William (Bill) George West Telegraphist Air Gunner, Fleet Air Arm, Royal Navy William   (Bill)   George   West   was   born   on   January   8,   1925   in   Stockport,   twelve   miles   from   Manchester   in   Cheshire,   a   northern   England industrial   town   with   both   cotton   mills   and   hat   factories.   His   mother   was   a   milliner,   his   father   a   mill   manager   and   formerly   a   soldier   of   the British   Army   in   India.      Bill   was   one   of   two   sons.   A   brother,   Tony,   was   born   when   Bill   was   seventeen.   During   the   war   Tony   was   little,   and whenever he saw a plane going over, he thought it was Bill.   Stockport was a Roman fortress town and historically one of the oldest Roman centres in England. “When   I   was   a   boy   there   were   still   Roman   cobbled   streets/roads   about    including      our   main   road fully   cobbled   'five   chariots   wide'   running   through   our   town   centre   from   London      to   the   North.      We   had the   Stockport   Tram   Lines   on   the   cobbles!   The   trams   have   gone   now   and   so   have   the   cobbles   but   the authorities have kept some sections for heritage reasons.” “I   had   a   happy   childhood.   I   went   to   church   and   Sunday   school   at   St.   Mathews,   Edgeley,   became a   Cub   and   later   a   Boy   Scout,   and   a   member   of   the Air Training   Corps.”         Bill   attended   Stockport   School and left school at age fifteen. At   the   outbreak   of   war   in   1939,   with   so   many   men   enlisted   in   the   services,   there   was   no shortage   of   jobs   for   a   young   man.   Bill   applied   for   and   received   a   position   with   the   LMS   Railways.      The Company   sent   him   back   to   part   time   school   at   Stockport   College   to   become   a   bookkeeper   but   Bill joined   up   before   he   finished   the   course.   We   experienced   air   raids   on   Manchester   and   Stockport experienced   air   raids   and   Bill,   although   in   the Air   Training   Corps   was   a   messenger   in   the Auxiliary   Fire Service. “The   industries   of   Manchester   had   been   severely   bombed   and   some   of   the   over-bombing   struck   parts   of   Stockport.   There   were   many casualties   and   in   most   of   our   minds   there   was   a   distrust   and   even   hatred   of   the   enemy,   so   many   of   us   were   volunteers   before   our   call   up dates.” “When   World   War   II   broke   out   my   home   town   of   Stockport   had   at   least   a   dozen   cinemas   and   my   suburb   of   Edgeley   had   two   and   most folk   went   to   the   pictures.      Just   before   I   was   eighteen   in   1942,      I   went   to   the   Alexandra   Cinema   and   watched   a   war   film   about   the   Royal Navy's   Fleet Air Arm   and   what   its   ‘birdies’   did.   I   was   already   impressed   with   the   Fleet Air Arm,   but   as   I   was   nearing   call   up   and   it   was   said that volunteering got you into the unit of choice, I volunteered and applied to join the Royal Navy as aircrew in the Fleet Air Arm.” Just   before   turning   eighteen,   Bill   received   a   letter   from   the   recruiting   office   with   orders   to   report   to   the Air   Crew   Selection   Board   at Crewe in Cheshire. An interview and medical followed. “I   asked   to   join   the   Fleet   Air   Arm   as   aircrew   and   after   a   selection   board   interview   and   tests   I   was   accepted   to   do   a   Telegraphist   Air Gunners’ course.” After   several   weeks   and   nearing   his   birthday   he   got   the   approval   letter   and   a   train   ticket   to   HMS   Royal Arthur   at   Skegness   on   the   east coast   of   England.      Royal Arthur,   the   former   Butlins   Holiday   center   at   the   sea-side   resort   in   Skegness   had   hut   accommodations   and   was   taken over   by   the   Royal   Navy   at   the   outbreak   of   war. As   a   ‘boot   camp’,   the   new   recruits   were   given   the   usual   sailor’s   uniform   and   lots   of   military drill by a Chief Petty officer. The   group   was   then   sent   to   the   cadet   training   school   at   HMS   Saint   Vincent,   Gosport,   in   Hampshire,   for   air   radio   and   aircrew regulation training. After   a   month   at   HMS   Saint   Vincent,   Bill   was   one   of   those   chosen   to   train   at   No   1   Air   Gunners   School   at   East   Camp,   Yarmouth,   Nova Scotia   in   Canada   and   was   sent   to   a   holding   base   in   Glasgow,   on   the   Clyde,   to   await   passage.   During   the   war   fifty   percent   of   Telegraphist Air Gunners were selected to train at East Camp. The   group   crossed   the   Atlantic   on   the   liner   RMS   Queen   Elizabeth   from   Glasgow   to   New   York.      In   New   York   that   ship   would   berth alongside the French liner Normandie, which was turned over on it side attributed to Nazi sabotage. They   stayed   at   the   Royal   Navy   service   camp   at   Astbury   Park,   New   Jersey.   The   camp   had   been,   prior   to   the   war,   holiday   apartments for   New   Yorkers.   The   Royal   Navy   barracks   comprised   two   hotels   which   were   fenced   and   had   a   center   forecourt   as   a   parade   ground.      From there   the   group   travelled   by   train   to   Boston   and   to   St   John,   New   Brunswick   in   Canada.      From   St.   John   they   crossed   the   Bay   of   Fundy   to Digby in Nova Scotia on the ferry Princess Helene and by train to Yarmouth. “The   Princess   Helene   was   blacked   out   because   of U-boat   activity   and   we   were   told   that   another   ferry,   a sister   ship   to   the   Princess   Helene,   had   been   sunk   most likely by a mine from a U-boat” In   April    1942,    it    was    reported    by    intelligence services   that   a   submarine   might   try   to   attack   the   dry- dock   in   Saint   John   and   the   Princess   Helene.   The   ferry SS   Caribou,   from   Sydney   to   Newfoundland,   was   sunk   on October    15,    1941    with    137    lives    lost.    The    Princess Helene   made   two   return   trips   daily,   Between   St.   John and    Digby.   The    group    of    young    British    lads    became Course   50A   at   Yarmouth   for   Telegraphist   Air   Gunners. Training   went   on   with   very   few   breaks   because   of   the weather.   Air   radio   in   the   Fleet   Air   Arm   had   just   moved into   RT   (radio   telephony);   however,   it   was   new   and   WT (wireless    telegraphy)    for    Morse    code    was    still    very much used as it had a much longer range than RT.   “We   did   ops   room   training   for   about   eight   weeks   before   we   were   chosen   for   flying   and   sent   to   the   RCAF   store   to   get   our   aircrew   log book   with   Royal   Canadian   Air   Force   printed   on   the   cover.   We   trained   in   Fairey   Swordfish   with   both   Royal   Air   Force   and   Royal   Canadian   Air Force   pilots.   The   course   was   issued   with   RCAF   aircrew   log   books,   which   is   the   only   one   I   had.   The   trainee   TAG's   did   air   radio   exercises,   air to   ground   plus   plane   to   plane.   We   had   to   roll   out   very   long   trailing   antennae   and   drag   it   back.   The   trainee   also   had   to   wind   down   and   lock the wheel undercarriage for landing.”    Bill’s   first   flight   at   East   Camp   was   for   wireless   training   on   September   20,   1943   at   0930   hours   in   a   Swordfish   piloted   by   P/O   Hayward. The flight lasted forty minutes. His last training flight was on December 29, 1943. That flight lasted over 8 hours.   “Our   'passing   out'   certificates   were   in   the   form   of   regulation   cloth/paper   record   forms   headed   "History   Sheet   for   Telegraphist   Air- Gunner   and   Rating   Observer"   with   all   our   examination   results   listed.   We   had   to   immediately   hand   them   back   to   the   Writers'   Office   and   we were formally presented with TAG Wings which we wore on the left cuff.” Like   many   of   the   young   British   TAGs   training   at   East   Camp,   Bill   made   fri ends with people in Yarmouth.   “I   recall   the   Lake   Milo Yacht   Club   and   taking   Betty   Miller   to   a   dance   there   (or she   took   me).   I   also   recall   ice   yachts   on   Lake   Milo   after   a   big   freeze,   fridges   were not   around   in   those   days,   but   many   Yarmouth   folk   had   ice   chests   and   I   do   recall   a Yarmouth   ice   company   cutting   huge   portions   of   ice   and   burying   that   cut   ice   for   sale later on.” Another   memory   I   recall   was   that   Helen   Gavel   worked   in   the   Woolworth Store on the main street.” At   eighteen   years   of   age,   Bill   was   confident   and   outgoing.      He   spent   time   at the   Gavel   farm   in   Richfield   traveling   by   the   train   from   Yarmouth   to   Richfield   and detraining in the village of Hectanooga in Digby County. The   village   lies   in   rural   Nova   Scotia   beyond   Richfield.      There   he   worked   in the   hay   during   the   summer   of   1942,   spent   time   walking   the   wooded   road   to   the river and relaxing away from East Camp. On   completion   of   his   training   George   Gavel   and   his   wife   Cleta   gave   Bill   a copy    of    the    Bible    which    he    still    has    among    his    belongings.        Cleta    Gavel corresponded with Bill’s mother in England during the war. Bill   returned   to   Britain   and   Lee- on-Solent,   after   his   TAG   training,   on the   Dutch   liner   New   Amsterdam   from Halifax,   Nova   Scotia.   He   had   seven   operational   training   flights   from   the   Fleet   Air   Arm   Station at Lee-On-Solent before temporarily joining 826 Squadron. For   the   next   four   years   Bill   was   with   820   Squadron   assigned   to   HMS   Indefatigable   spending time both in the Atlantic and Pacific campaigns He    was    sent    to    the    Royal    Navy   Airs    Station    in    Crail    Scotland    for    Ops    training    in Barracudas.      He   never   managed   to   fly   in   the   Barracuda   because   826   Squadron   within   a   few weeks of his arrival was merged into 820 which flew Grumann Avengers. Down   with   a   bad   case   of   the   flu   he   didn’t   participate   when   826   Squadron   flying Barracudas   went   to   sea   to   attack   the   German   battleship   Tirpitz   in   Alten   Fiord   Norway      in Operation ‘Goodwood IV’ during August 1944. Training   in Avengers   was   completed   at   the   Royal   Navy Air   Station   Kirkwall,   in   the   Orkney Islands.   820   Squadron   then   rejoined   the   HMS   Indefatigable   with   the   new Avengers   and   with   the rest of the British Pacific Fleet sailed for the Indian Ocean and then into the Pacific Ocean. There   were   twelve   more   advanced   training   flights   from   the   Royal   Navy Air   Station   HMS   Ukussa   in   Ceylon   in   the   district   of   Katakarunda not far from Colombo. These training flights were flown off the Indefatigable in December 1944. Squadrons   from   HMS   Indefatigable   and   other      aircraft   carriers   of   the   British   Royal   Navy   Pacific   Fleet   led   air   strikes   against   the Japanese   held   oil   refinery   at   Medan   on      January   4,   1945,   and   against   the   Japanese   held   Dutch   Oil   refinery   at   Palambang   on      January   24   and 29,   1945.      On   the   29th,   the   final   day   of   operations,   having   made   the   two   hundred   mile   flight   from   the   carriers   over   ocean   and   the   jungle terrain of Sumatra, the British  Avengers came under heavy attack from Japanese Zero fighters and ground artillery.   “Just   before   our   Grumann   Avenger   got   to   the   target   we   lost   engine   revs   and   couldn't   keep   up   with   the   main   strike   force.   We   were still   flying   on   course   but   we   observed   Japanese   Army   buildings   that   were not   far   from   the   general   target   area.   To   lose   a   lot   of   weight   we   bombed the   new   target   then   started   to   limp   back   to   the   Indefatigable   on   our   own. We   were   fortunate   not   to   meet   any   Zeros.   We   had   flown   from   the   Indian Ocean   side   of   Sumatra   to   the   target   area   on   the   other   side.   Getting   back all on our own was dicey.” Following   the   Palambang   strikes   HMS   Indefatigable   sailed   for   Sydney Australia   where   several   destroyers   from   the   Royal   Australian   Navy   joined the   larger   Royal   Navy   Aircraft   Carriers   as   escort.   HMAS   Quiberon   became attached   to   HMS   Indefatigable.   Earlier   HMAS   Quiberon   had   picked   up   some downed   flyers   from   820   Squadron   after   an   encounter   with   the   Japanese Air Force. S ydney,   Australia   became   the   home   port   for   the   largest   fleet   ever assembled   by   the   Royal   Navy.   That   fleet   included   battleships,   cruisers, destroyers,   tankers,   supply   ships,   minesweepers   as   well   as   several   light fleet   carriers,   an   aircraft   repair   carrier,   and   former   merchant   ships   fitted with   flight   decks   called   auxiliary   or   MAC   (merchant   aircraft   carrier)   ships.     Among   the   five   aircraft   carriers   was   HMS   Indefatigable.      The   fleet   was made   up   of   warships   from   Australia,   New   Zealand,   Canada,   South   Africa, and France.   The   Pacific   Fleet   moved   on   to   Sumatra   and   carried   out   strikes   on the   Sakishima   Islands   and   Japan   itself.   Until   the   landings   at   Okinawa   the task   assigned   the   British   Pacific   carriers   was   to   attack   Japanese   airfields on   groups   of   Japanese   islands   called   The   Sakishima   Gunto   and   the   Ryuku Islands. Prior   to   those   attacks,   820   Squadron   carried   out   operations   against small shipping in Hirara Harbour, Myoko Jima, south of Japan. “After   Palambang   the   Squadron   made   strikes   against   small   Japanese   shipping   in   Hirara   Harbour   on   Myoko   Jima   south   of   Japan.      This raid   was   on   March   27,   1945.      It   was   successful   and   a   few   days   later   we   sensed   there   was   a   Japanese   sub   some   where   checking   us   out.      We did   a   checkered   anti   sub   patrol   with   others   of   the   squadron   with   no   result.      This   was   on   March   30,   1945.         On   the   next   day   we   did   a   strike on   the   Japanese   airfields   on   Ishigake.   Our   aim   was   to   wreck   the   runways   and   this   we   did.      We   were   successful   with   raids   on   shipping   in   all parts of the Sakishima Gunto. Similar raids took place on April 7th, 10th, 13th, 15th, 17th, and on the 29th.” On   Easter   Sunday, April   1,   1945   the   British   fleet   carriers   had   flown   off   their   first   fighter   strike   when   Japanese   aircraft   were   detected by   radar   seventy-five   miles   to   the   eastward,   closing   in   on   the   fleet   at   210   knots   at   a   height   of   8000   feet.      Low   cloud   and   consequent   poor visibility gave initial advantage to the Japanese, who split their formation some forty miles from the fleet. The   ships   were   firing   at   the   enemy   aircraft   when   a   Kamikaze   bomber   carrying   a   250-kilogram   bomb   came   out   of   the   clouds   and attacked HMS Indefatigable.  The plane crashed across the carrier flight deck. “I   was   on   board   when   the   Kamikaze   plane   hit   the   after   end   of   the   Island   Control   unit   rear   of   the   bridge   where   the   island   sick   bay   is situated   and   finished   exploding   on   the   flight   deck   alongside.     A   few   aircraft   were   damaged   but   four   officers   and   ten   ratings   were   killed   and sixteen   others   were   wounded.      The   sick   bay   was   empty   except   for   the   doctor   on   duty   who   was   killed   in   the   attack.   He   was   a   Canadian doctor on loan to the Royal Navy.” The   Canadian,   twenty-nine   year-old   Dr.   Alan   McCarthy   Vaughan   (Royal   Canadian   Navy   Volunteer   Reserve)   was   serving   as   a   Surgeon Lieutenant aboard HMS Indefatigable. “The   British   aircraft   carriers   had   armour   plate   steel   flight   decks   unlike   the   United   States   carriers   that   had   wooden   flight   decks.     While   this   gave   them   a   somewhat   larger   ship   with   more   aircraft   than   the   British   carriers,   those   wooden   decks   were   an   ideal   target   for kamikazes.”  Bill   participated   in   eleven   strikes   on   the   Japanese   including   one   anti   submarine   search.      On   his   last   operation,   April   29,   1945,   his aircraft   didn’t   quite   land   smoothly   on   the   aircraft   carrier.      He   was   thrown   forward   and   his   face   injured.      Initially,   he   was   taken   to   sick   bay and   the   facial   injury   bandaged;   however,   the   following   day   it   was   discovered   the   injury   was   more   serious.      After   Bill   passed   out   and   once again found himself in sick bay, a decision was made to return him on a hospital ship to Sydney, Australia. Sydney, Australia   became   a   favourite   place   for   R&R.         Various   centres   were   established   in   the   city   to   provide   allied   service   personnel with   meals   and   recreation.      Freed   from   the   military   hospital   with   a   pass,   Bill   and   Denny   Vaughn,   another TAG,   made   their   way   to   the   British Service Club in Hyde Park. Gwen   Jamieson,   a   Sydney   girl,   was   employed   at   the   T   &   G   Insurance   Co.   She   had    answered   a   request   posted   on   a   notice   board   at work   to   young   Sydney   women   to   go   to   the   British   Service   Club   to   help   welcome   young   English   service   men.   Her   first night at the Centre in mid 1945 she met Bill West.  After   that   first   meeting   in   the   early   part   of   1945,   they   met   every   night   as   he   had   a   leave   pass   for   every second   night   and   a   very   good   copy   of   a   leave   pass   for   every   other   night.   Bill   became   a   constant   visitor   at   Gwen’s house. He went to church with her and enjoyed the involvement and friendship of her family. Bill   had   to   ask   the   permission   of   the   captain   of   the   Indefatigable   marry   Gwen,   and   she   had   to   go   for   an interview   to   determine   that   she   was   suitable.   The   British   Navy   was   impressed   with   Gwen,   a   school   teacher’s daughter who had graduated from high school and was employed with an insurance company. Bill   and   Gwen   were   married   at   Hurlstone   Park   Baptist   Church,   Sydney,   at   7   p.m.   on   a   Friday   night,   November 2, 1945. Bill   was   involved   in   some   early   training   of Australian   Fleet Air Arm   personnel   at   Schofields   in   New   South   Wales.   He   did   not   return   to the Pacific Campaign.  In   June   1945,   HMS   Indefatigable   and   840   Squadron   joined   the   7th   Carrier Air   Group,   and   was   involved   in   strikes   around Tokyo   until   the war   ended   and   the   carrier   returned   to   Sydney.   Bill   returned   to   England   on   Indefatigable   in   January   1946   to   leave   the   Navy   and   resume employment in the railway. In   1946   civilian   travel   was   restricted   as   the   seas   were   still   fraught   with   danger   and it   wasn’t   until   July   3,   1946   that   Gwen   sailed   from   Sydney,   one   of   655   Australian   war brides   of   British   servicemen,   on   the   aircraft   carrier   HMS   Victorious.      Bill   met   Gwen   at Plymouth on August 7, 1946. They   reunited   couple   settled   down   to   live   on   in   post-war   England.   They   lived   in Stockport and Gwen worked at W. G. West, a business owned by Bill’s uncle. Bill   decided   that   post-war   England   was   not   as   attractive   as   Sydney   and   so   in   the spring   of   1947   Bill   and   Gwen   decided   to   return   to   Australia   making   the   trip   onboard   the SS   Stratheden   on   its   maiden   voyage   to   Australia   after   conversion   from   a   troopship.   They were   on   a   waiting   list   and   a   vacancy   occurred   three   days   before   sailing.      The   ship   sailed from   Tilbury   and   arrived   at   8:00   am   on   August   1,   1947   in   Sydney   Harbour.   Gwen   was   six months   pregnant   and   six   weeks   after   arrival   in   Sydney   the   first   of   their   three   daughters was   born.   On   November   2,   2005,   Bill   and   Gwen   West   celebrated   their   Diamond   Wedding Anniversary. Bill   had   a   job   organized   in Australia   working   as   an   apprentice   French   polisher   with family   friends   who   owned   a   furniture   making   business.   After   three   months   he   obtained employment   with   BP   in   a   clerical/administrative   capacity.   Bill   continued   to   work   with   BP for thirty-five years until his retirement in 1979.