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Library Reference Number: 151

From Boy To Man

Harry Tait, Scottish Saltire Branch, The Aircrew Association

The youth of today having reached teen-age in the 21St century, may have ambivalent ideas on how or when they gained manhood or adulthood. For Harry Tait however, having reached the age of nineteen at the beginning of a world war, there was little chance of avoiding life-changing experiences. In retrospect, Harry Tait feels that his aircrew experience led to him swiftly leaving his boyhood far behind. Some of those experiences which enabled this transition in life-stages are described in the following summary:

I joined the Royal Air Force in March 1940, and was sent to West Kirby, near Liverpool for 'square bashing' and basic training before taking up further training as a Clerk, Special Duties. The `special duties' part I learned was in connection with the newly emerging radar technology. Posted to Skara Brae in Orkney, I was to witness my first encounter with German aircrew, when a Ju88 was brought down by Martlet aircraft of 804 Squadron Fleet Air Arm. Not seriously injured, the German crew arrogantly predicted they would be returned to Germany within three weeks, after Germany won the war. All this excitement must have appealed to my youthful enthusiasm, as I shortly afterwards volunteered for aircrew, choosing to become a Navigator.

My cunning idea was that as a Navigator I would have someone in charge to look after me, but Selection Board findings disagreed, and dictated that I was to become a Pilot - and instead I would be responsible for looking after other crew members. After a couple of months, I received notice that my Pilot training was to begin; not somewhere in UK as I had expected, but either Egypt or Singapore was the prediction at that time.

In complete contrast to my earlier clerical beginnings, I now set off from Liverpool towards the U-boat hunting areas of the South Atlantic. We headed initially towards American waters in a wide sweep towards Freetown in Sierra Leone for refuelling. We then continued south round the Cape of Good Hope to Durban, where we disembarked to await further instructions. It was with some relief I learned I was being posted to Egypt not Singapore, and we set off up the east coast of Africa into the Red Sea. After a few weeks in Cairo, I then moved on to a HQ Unit deep in the desert between Alexandria and El Alamein, controlling movements of Allied aircraft in relation to activities of all bandits, implementing information gained from radar stations.

Recent travel events then became clearer when we discovered that due to Italy's ambition to increase the size of their North African empire, shipping through the Mediterranean had become too hazardous, which for us meant the long detour around the Cape. A month later, I was pleased to get news of my Pilot training which was to take place in Rhodesia. Arriving there, I began with ground subjects such as meteorology, navigation, armaments, aircraft recognition and morse code. Then eventually taking to the air, I completed ten weeks and seventy-five hours in Tiger Moths resulting in my solo, in spite of one impatient flying instructor who bawled and swore which created unnecessary additional tension for student pilots like myself.

I then moved on to Airspeed Oxfords with blind landings, bombing exercises, night flying and photography which I really enjoyed. Another 150 hours and four months later, as well as gaining my 'wings' I received my commission as a Pilot Officer. I was selected for a GR Squadron, being told I was suitable for 4-engine bombers, flying boats and general reconnaissance. The GR course lasted six weeks in George (Cape Province), while there I met Roger who was to become my best mate. This perhaps had something to do with my gaining top pilot place on my course, while Roger had similar success on his course at Johannesburg. As luck would have it, we were both posted to No. 14 Squadron based in Sardinia flying Martin B26 Marauders. Interesting to note, that while Martin's PR people were describing the Marauder as "the world's most advanced aircraft" some crews named it the "widow maker." One reason being that on an earlier raid all ten aircraft had been lost.

Discovering that the squadron was at full strength in Sardinia, we were attached to Grottaglie near Taranto on the heel of Italy. Our main task there being to reconnoitre the sea lanes and ports around the Adriatic. This might involve flying up the east coast of Italy to Venice and Trieste, and then down the west coast of Yugoslavia past Split, Dobrovnik, on to Corfu and as far as Cape Matapan. Our brief on those missions being to fly under the radar beam at fifty feet, if we found anything worth bombing then move out to sea and radio ahead for Beaufighters or bombers to attack those targets we had pin-pointed for them. This type of mission was so demanding on one's concentration, that we carried two pilots. Flying so low over the sea, the altimeter could not give an accurate reading, and the industrial haze from cities even robbed us of a horizon. In fact, we actually lost two crews plunging into the sea presumably from temporary loss of concentration.

By mid-1944, Monte Casino and Rome had been dealt with, and all Italian harbours were now secure. My last recce trip was to confirm the sinking of the liner 'Rex' which had once held the Blue Riband for crossing the Atlantic. The ship had been spotted making its way up the Yugoslav coast towards Trieste, the intention had been to use it as a block ship making the harbour useless for the Allies. I photographed it lying on its side in Capodistria Bay. Though I experienced heavy flak, it was still sad to see a once-fine liner in such a sorry state.

As the Mediterranean area was now completely under Allied control, No. 14 Squadron was moved back to UK, and I sailed back to Liverpool on the `Capetown Castle' via Gibraltar rather than the long way round on the way out. We were still in Coastal Command but had now converted to Wellingtons for anti-submarine missions in the Bay of Biscay. Things were obviously now changing on the war front, as many of the French ports with U-boat pens had now been captured, thus forcing Hitler's submarines to go back to Germany for supplies and repairs.

Admittedly those patrols were necessary, but I found them boring, six or seven hours searching the sea, with very little to be seen, then something on the notice board attracted my attention. It was a request for volunteer Pilots and Navigators to fly Beaufighters on anti-shipping work in Norwegian and Danish waters. The part of the notice that shone out for me personally, was that the three-month conversion course was to be held at East Fortune - only about half an hour from my home and family. My long-held friend Roger decided to volunteer as well, although I pointed out my reason for volunteering was to be closer to my home. In war, nothing is certain where life or death is concerned, but it will be seen later that Roger's decision to join me in volunteering to fly Beaufighters in antishipping work in Norwegian waters was to have a devastating outcome.

Having been accepted, we then took leave of our squadron crews who had been with us in the Middle East, and thanked them for their comradeship and help while on active service in the Mediterranean. We discovered that the conversion course to Beaufighters actually started on Beauforts, which was handy as they had room in the cockpit for an Instructor. Once we had mastered Beauforts to solo grade, we then moved on to Beaufighter low flying, airto-air firing, also firing rockets in the sand dunes on the West Course at North Berwick - sacrilege of course, but a necessity of war! With air-to-air interception practice over Fidra and Bass Rock, I somehow managed to sever the towing cable and the drogue wrapped itself around my wing causing a great deal if instability. I warned my Navigator that he may have to bail out, but anyhow the drogue slipped off into the River Forth. Landing safely at East Fortune, I asked how many points I would get for shooting down the drogue? None! I was told, unless I hired a boat to retrieve the evidence.

Because we enjoyed our time so much at East Fortune, Roger and I came out with above-average marks, were both promoted Flight Lieutenant, and both posted to the same Unit, No. 144 Squadron, part of the Dallachy Strike Wing, based at the mouth of the Spey. On leaving the course I got married and managed to have three days leave before joining my Squadron. When I arrived, I asked my new C.O. if I could have another three days leave, as I had just got married and had been abroad for four years. To my surprise, he told me to go off for a week!

My good fortune turned to despair however, on returning from my relaxation and enjoyment. Roger had been killed in an attack on a Norwegian fjord - as it turned out, Roger was the last man in the Squadron to die in the war. To add to my grief, I then learned that the crew I had left behind at No. 14 Squadron, with whom I had flown in the Med and the Bay of Biscay, had failed to return from a mission three weeks after I left them.

It was now nearing the end of world war two, and I only just managed to complete four more operations before hostilities ended. My last flight was on 191h June 1945, when the C.O. asked me to take the Beaufighters, as squadron leader to St.Athans in South Wales. He wanted the twelve planes to take off in formation from Dallachy and to land in formation at St.Athans. The other lads told me they wanted to 'beat up' their homes on the way down. I said I would fly over Gordon Castle, where I had rented a house, and they were then to follow me towards Aberdeen, where I would supposedly run into the `Scotch mist' so that they could break off and do what they needed to - as long as they regrouped and still made it to St.Athans that night. They did!

Aircrew normally establish a strong rapport with their Units, what happened to my two Squadrons? In 1955, No. 14 became a Fighter Squadron flying in turn Mosquitos, Vampires, Venoms, Hunters, and from January 2001 have been flying Tornadoes based at RAF Lossiemouth. No.144 on the other hand disbanded soon after the war ended. Then on 1" December 1959, No. 144 reformed at North Luffenham as a Thor intermediate range ballistic missile unit, until finally disbanding again on 23rd August 1953.

By late 1945 I was demobbed, as I had made an early entry into RAF service at the outbreak of war. Five years on, that nineteen-year-old boy was now twenty-four, married, a bit bruised but still alive; having seen things and achieved many things he would never have thought possible before - and most definitely no longer a boy!

Note: Further details of Harry Tait's aircrew service may be seen in the following two stories in the Branch Website Library:- "News From Home" (Index No. 38) & "The Lone Survivor" (Index No. 76).

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