By Dick Croot

I joined the RAF Volunteer Reserve three days after my 18th. Birthday in November 1940 and was sent to Cardington, near Bedford , for attestation. I was allocated a bed in a hut on the camp and after spending about an hour unsuccessfully, trying to light a coke stove with just paper and coke decided to go to the camp cinema to get warm, but after about ten minutes the air-raid siren sounded and we were turned out to the shelters and so, on the all-clear, I went to bed - a good start to my time in the RAF - and missing my mum, as well!

I wanted to be an aero-engine mechanic and after answering all the questions on engines (correctly, 1 thought) when I was being attested, they told me "Right, we're short of airframe mechanics so that's the course you'll be sent on". That was my first lesson - never tell them what you want to do or where you want to go; because that makes sure it never happens!

My six weeks foot-slogging training was at Blackpool, and trying to get a shine on our boots after stamping around in snow and slush for about six hours each day meant our evenings were always spent trying to dry 'hem out and polishing our buttons.

After Blackpool , I was posted to Cosford in Shropshire for a sixteen-week's rigger's course and then a further eight-week's fitter's course. My first Unit posting was to Harwell, now an atomic station, near Oxford , which was a ' Wellington Bomber Squadron. It was nice to get out into the country main and within reasonable distance of home, but we didn’t get many week-ends off and even then I had to leave home at Gayhurst at 2.30pm to get back to camp by midnight In March 1942 I was posted overseas Churchill had recently stated that no Servicemen under 20 would be sent abroad, but forgot to add that didn’t apply to Dick Croot, because I was nineteen years and 4 months at that time! Still, I was keen and daft at that time and thought it would be like a Cook's Tour.

We sailed from Greenock , Scotland , in the” Empress of Japan " - a 32,000 ton liner with 5,000 troops on board.                I managed to stay a healthy colour for about a week before turning a definite green and joining a few thousand others who were glad they hadn’t joined the Navy and were wishing the ship would sink! Anyway, we eventually pulled in at Freetown in the Gold coast (or Sierra Leone as it is now) and although we weren’t allowed ashore we enjoyed watching the small native boys diving for pennies thrown overboard; or they would dive right under the ship for silver coins (but usually knew if it was a half-penny wrapped in silver paper!)

After two days we set off again and went round The Cape and up to Durban , where the RAF were put ashore and sent to Clairwood Camp, on the race-course.

The South African people were marvelous hosts and there were always invitations to people's homes for anyone off duty.

We spent six weeks there and were quite prepared to stay in Durban for the duration - especially as the Germans sank two ships just outside the harbour while we were there! Anyway, we eventually got going again and ended up on the "Il de France" heading for the Red Sea and Port Suez on the southern end of the Suez Canal in Egypt . From there we were taken to a transit camp at Kasfareet, near the Great Bitter Lakes to get acclimatized and to wait for our Squadron postings.

There was a warrant Officer in charge who had got a touch of the sun and he used to have us digging holes in the sand one day and filling them in the next day, and then collecting stones and painting them white to put round his "parade ground", which was only a square marked off in the sand. We heard later that he had been certified and sent home.

When I finally got my posting it was with 114 Squadron, Transport command, which had DC2's and DC3's ( Dakotas ) and stationed at Bilbeis - between Cairo and Ismalia on the Sweet Water Canal . Whoever gave the canal that name must have had a great sense of humour because although the Egyptians used to drink it, wash in it and do everything else in it , we were told to report sick for an inoculation against Bilharzias if we were even splashed with it!

The DC2's were fairly ancient aircraft and we had to hand-start them by cranking an inertia motor, but all Dakotas were very reliable and good aircraft to work on. 114 Squadron was transporting guns, ammunition, petrol in Jerry Cans and almost anything else for the 8th. Army in the desert, which was retreating back to Alamein.

When Montgomery took over from General 'Wavell and started to prepare for the Battle of Alamein we were working round the clock trying to keep everything in the air; but we were still a lot better off than the Desert Rats "up the blue".

I went into Tel el Kabir military hospital with malaria soon after Alamein and a lot of the casualties had come down from there. After I came out of hospital I was sent to El Balah convalescent camp by the Suez Canal where everyone had to go on an army assault course before returning to their Unit - which didn’t go down very well for a RAF "sprog''!

There was no Air force ­Blue battledress then and our normal uniform was Army-khaki battledress and the only thing to identify that we were in the RAF was our blue forage cap and when I was put on night ward with six soldiers the Orderly Officer (who had only just come overseas took one look at me and said "And whose bloody side are you on?"

Anyway, back with 14 Squadron we followed the Desert Rats up through the desert - (keeping well behind and out of trouble!) But for a short time the squadron was refueling a squadron of Hurricanes behind the German lines until they found out why their bombers were getting shot down when they should have been safe. El Adem was one good camp in the desert because it was only about 15 miles from Tobruk and we used to go swimming in the harbour - among the 42 sunken wrecks! Caster Bent, near Tripoli was also a good camp aid we took over a former Italian barracks which even had baths!

After Tripoli the Squadron went to Bali on the heel of Italy but was only there a short time before being posted to India; But all personnel who had less than a year to complete their tour of four years for single men or three years for married were told they would not be going. So seven of us were sent back to Tripoli to repair a Dakota which was damaged when some idiot selected "wheels up" while it was still on the ground!

We were seconded to the South African Air force, who were then at Caster Benito, given a I5cwt. Truck and 600 gallons of petrol; and living with the SAFs was a luxury as we had a ration of brandy - and milk on our porridge! (Instead of a ladle-full of stodge from a bucket!) I was also given a Forces Parcel from South Africa , which included a long scarf and a pair of red socks - jolly handy in the desert!

When the Dakota was repaired we flew back to Egypt with it and my new Squadron was - of all places - at Bilbeis, where I had first started. This unit was No.1 Check and Conversion Unit which was converting experienced pilots to transport captains.

The C.0 was Squadron Leader Priest who after the war was Captain of the queen's Flight; and our Air Officer was Air Commodore Whitney-Strait who was chief of B.O.A.O.(British Overseas Airways Corporation - now defunct)

The only good thing about being back at Bilbeis was that part of the captain's training was flying down to Germiston, near Pretoria in South Africa, every six weeks, taking and collecting spares, etc., and as the crew included two ground staff we used to take turns to fly down there.    On one of my flights down there we had two aero-engines on board and after an hour and a half one of our engines packed up so we had to turn round - and it was a bit if a rough ride back which rattled the rivets a bit.

While I was back at Bilbeis I applied for a fortnight's leave and arranged to meet Owen Warren, my brother-­in-law who was in Palestine , in the R.E.M.E. We had a week at Nathanya Leave Camp - where we managed to lower the level of cherry-brandy in the canteen!- but as Owen could only get one week's leave, whereas I had a fortnight, I went back to his camp for my second week and stayed there undetected - except by his mates - keeping my RAF hat out of sight! By this time I'd had enough of Bilbeis and decided to apply to the C 0 for a posting, preferably out of Egypt, and was sent to Lydda in Palestine; a lovely green country after the desert. One of the jobs I was put on while at Lydda was to fly as ground crew to service twelve Dakotas sent out specially to Palestine to take 250 Jewish terrorists belonging to the Irgun Gang, (they were anti-British, at the time the Jews were claiming Palestine as their country) to Asmara in Eritrea.

The prisoners were handcuffed in batches of twenty and guarded by the Palestinian Police. Some of the scenery in Eritrea is breathtaking - mountains and valleys - and Asmara airfield is 6,000ft on top of a mountain.

I eventually got my posting home after four years overseas and sailed from Alexandria in Egypt to Hyeres near Toulon, France, and then by train - 48 hours on wooden seats - to Dieppe. We had to wait for three days at a transit camp for a boat across the Channel because of bad weather and -then arrived at Newhaven and up to London by train, where we were given 14 days leave and to wait for a new posting.

This time it was to Jolerne near Bath , in Wiltshire, where I was helping to convert Lancaster bombers into Lancastrians. These were used as flying offices and quarters for top VIP's at the end of the war. Strangely enough, Owen was stationed at Corsham, about three miles away, so we used to meet occasionally in Bath for an evening out.

I was sent to Cardington to be demobbed - finished where I had started - a little bit wiser, much craftier and six years older, but with no regrets for having gone.