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Library Reference Number: 162

Memoirs of an Inter-Continent Navigator

Alex Bowie, Scottish Saltire Branch, ACA

1940 Member No.7 in newly constituted Edinburgh University Air Squadron. Did .my first flight from Turnhouse in a Miles Magister in October. Experienced first RAF meal here, required knife and fork to cut the Pea Soup. Square-bashing was done at the Usher Gymnasium in the Pleasance and in Arthur Street a few yards along the street At that time this was the steepest street in town and, shouldering a rifle felt as if one was climbing Everest! Interviewed by panel of very Senior RAF Officers who were somewhat non-plussed to find someone whose ambition was to NAVIGATE a Sunderland, not pilot a SPITFIRE!

1941 Five days weekly in uniform, two days at University work. RAF studies included Airmanship: Gunnery: Meteorology: taught by RAF personnel and Navigation taught by Lecturers from Leith Nautical College. All these subjects were taught in the Squadron Headquarters in the Usher Gymnasium or in High School Yards. We also spent frequent week~ends at Turnhouse. The Squadron was under. the command of S/L Pinfold, DFC, lately a Spitfire Pilot. Anticipating a quick call-up,I did not restart at University in October and filled in time selling bread as Co-op van-man and finally pen-pushing in the office. Waiting time stretched into months!

1942 Having passed RAF subjects now of Leading Aircraftman (LAC) rank. Called into RAF in June, travelling to Aircrew Reception Centre (ACRC ) in London with six other University colleagues. We lived in Hall Road, just round the corner from Lord's Cricket Ground where we were kitted out. Six weeks later we were posted to Brighton for more drill training mostly on the promenade. Occasionally our drill was disturbed by the odd FW 190 flashing in, dropping its bomb but always missing the town. August 19th, I celebrated my 21st Birthday, sitting on top of the Metropole Hotel, Brighton (where we lived) with a piece of cake sent from home, and a cup of cocoa. This also happened to be the day of the Dieppe Raid.

For several days prior to this raid Brighton was awash with rumours of Second Fronts to such an extent that when one of the cinemas was showing a war film, a slide was projected on the screen stating "THIS IS ONLY A FILM". On the 19th We were issued with Sten guns but no ammunition, the expectation being that the Germans would follow the Canadians back over the Channel since they clearly knew about the raid in advance security being very poor. One of our chaps asked our Flight-Sergeant where our ammunition was, to be told to take it from the first dead German he saw! After a few weeks in Brighton we were posted to Theale near Reading where we all had to complete 12 hours pilot training. My instructor Sgt. Smith spent most of our time in the Tiger Moth singing "Moonlight Becomes You" which he had heard in USA while training there. I had no interest in becoming a pilot but still had to do the requisite 12 hours before re-grading to Navigator-Bomber. This took place after I had been checked out by the C.O. Wing Commander Hooper whose claim to fame was that he led a Squadron of Wellesey bombers in formation from Egypt to Singapore before the war. I doubt he felt very comfortable in the Tiger Moth in a spin over Reading! Following several other training courses, we returned to Heaton Park'

1943 Early in January coming back to camp on the 62 bus, the conductress informed us we would be going to Glasgow the next day to embark for training in Canada and she was right! "WALLS HAVE EARS" the posters said and they were correct. We embarked on the Empress·of Scotland known pre war as the Empress of Japan in Glasgow and six days later arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia. We spent two nights and a day on the train from Halifax and finally arrived' at Moncton, New Brunswick, having passed through many towns en route ablaze with lights. The food on the train was a revelation Corn Flakes and Cream, Steak and Ice-cream, and lovely coffee! We discovered Navigators-Bombers were to be posted to appropriate schools 16 every two weeks, hence the stay here was lengthy, in fact some five months in all. The camp was enormous housing 10,000 would be aircrew in two-storey "H' blocks. The streets were named after Central London to help you find your way and, thanks to the entertainments officer Jimmy Edwards (the comedian) and local people, boredom was avoided.

In early May the long-awaited posting came and 16 of us were off to 31 Bombing & Gunnery School at Picton on Lake Ontario where the first person I met was Jacky Haldane from Newtongrange who was in my class at Dalkeith High School. He had joined the RAF straight from school and was now a corporal. He showed me all the necessary bits of the Bolingbroke in which the Air Gunnery was done and confidence was raised accordingly. The course here was well structured, reflecting the expertise of the leader F/Lt. Dickie Laws. Bombing was done from Mark 2 Ansons which required 139 turns of the handle to retract or set the undercarriage. The bombs were 4 1/2 practice ones with VERY cartridges which gave off a flash on hitting the ground. Ground staff personnel monitored these and established the closeness of the cluster dropped.

Gunnery was done from Bolingbrokes with three students in each aircraft. Each had different coloured ammunition which was fired at a drogue towed by a Lysander. A score of 9 hits out of the 200 rounds fired was a good average. Occasionally, the Lysander pilots flew too close to the Bolingbrokes thus giving the trainee a very good number of hits resulting in said pilot being severely rebuked!

Mid-summer brought the posting to No.9 Air Navigation School at St.Jean D'Iberville 16 miles south of Montreal on the river Richelieu. Course 23 was led by a benign Canadian from the Calgary area named F/Lt. Bob Dunn who so marshalled this course that there were no failures. The original initiation to Navigation experienced in the University by the Leith Nautical lecturers proved invaluable. At this time Mark 5 Ansons arrived and one of our pilots (all civilians) took a colleague out to show him the improvements and said "This is how you raise the wheels"- - - - The new aircraft now required two new propellers and new undercarriage!

On completion of this course we were posted to No.1 General Reconnaissance School at Summerside, Prince Edward Island. We were all Sergeants at this stage but three days later six of us were promoted to Pilot Officers. At the end of this course, we were given fourteen days leave and four of us went to New York for ten of them. We booked in to the Commodore Hotel at Grand Central Station at a cost per night of 13 dollars but only remained one night. We had been told to go to The English-Speaking Union which we did, and were immediately given tickets to allow us to stay at some millionaire's house on 5th.Avenue for the remainder of our leave. We had breakfast there each morning then nipped along to the Union office where we were given tickets for theatres, lunch invitations (one with the Commodore of the Cunard fleet in Statten Island),dinner invitation at the Waldorf Astoria where the resident band was Xavier Cugat.. His singer, Lina Romay joined our table when not singing and was very chatty indeed. Her idea that we might know her brother in the RCAF was a bit too much! Another day we were given tickets for Radio City Music-Hall where we saw the wonderful stage show with the famous Rockettes.

Another evening we saw the play "Lovers and Friends" whose players were Catherine Cornell, Helen Hayes, Henry Daniell and Raymond Massey who invited us to his dressing room where we were for at least an hour. At that time his brother was Governer-General of Canada. Good things come to an end hence we reported to Lachine a suburb of Montreal where we joined a train which took us all the way down the East Coast of USA to Miami. We stopped twice en route once at Rocky Mount, North Carolina where we were confronted by two white men with sawn-off shotguns who informed us they "would blow our heads off" if we gave any chocolate to the little black children. Next stop was Savannah, Georgia. where again stepping out of the train to stretch our legs we entered the station terminal and were yelled at because we had used the "Jim Crow i.e..Black's door not the White's entry. We still arrived at the same place! We embarked on the M.V.Jean Brillant and sailed to Nassau in the Bahamas to do Operational Training at No.111 O.T.U.

The first six weeks were spent at Oakes Field (named after the murdered Governor Sir Harry Oakes),flying B25 Mitchells. We did a fair amount of flying at ZERO feet at 250 mph. with the sea spray whipped up by the propellors which was very exhilarating but (I now know) was also very dangerous. Crewed up with FIL Alan Flowers and Sgt. Ken Lebeau as pilots doing Bombing and Gunnery exercises dropping logs in place of Bombs but towards the end of this part of the course we did several Anti-submarine patrols both day and night and dropped a 3251b depth charge. After 6 weeks we moved to Windsor Field and flew B24 Liberators. This Airfield was named after the Duke of Windsor who was Governor of the Bahamas at this time. We saw him regularly at the Golf Course, at USO shows in one of the Hangars and at Paradise Beach. We reached this beach using glass bottomed boats but HRH had a yacht! We also saw the Duchess at USO shows but she was rather unpopular because when she attended we had to wear Tunics and the place was mighty humid! Normally Officers were allowed to wear long sleeved shirts at dinner. There was a Canteen in town where the Duchess fried eggs for the other ranks one day each week!

At Windsor Field Alan Flowers, Ken Lebeau and I were joined by a Wireless Operator and Three Gunners and an Engineer and all exercises were done with eight men crew. The navigation position in the Liberator was in the nose. access being gained through the space at the nose wheel with the front gunner occupying the Gun Turret. We had to practise descending from 3-4000ft. to 50 ft. in less than 30 seconds to be able to release a 3251b depth charge successfully. Releasing above 50ft. meant that the depth charge would break-up on hitting the sea. Logs were used to attack the submersible target which was towed some 25ft.behind a tugboat and occasionally one could volunteer to "Skipper" this boat which was good fun. We were billeted in wooden huts housing 36 Officers in small rooms sleeping two people. Each hut had one batman who washed our shirts etc.

Twelve weeks concentrated effort saw us complete the course and on our way back to UK. We returned to Moncton from Nassau and quite quickly proceeded to Halifax where once again we met up with "The Empress of Scotland",but this time it was full of soldiers American and Canadian bound for Europe. Water was available for an hour morning and night; where there had been a canteen earlier was now a dormitory for 180 officers who each had a hammock to sleep in! Six days later in magnificent sunshine we sailed up the Clyde and disembarked at Greenock and by train to Padgate then three weeks leave, interrupted by a telegram requiring reporting to Doncaster which seemed a strange place for a Coastal Command crew. Meeting up with my two pilots cleared up the position. It appeared that Liberators were desperately required hence six ex-Nassau crews (pilots & Navigators only) were being sent to Montreal to fly them. As is the RAF way theory is one thing practice another. We embarked on the 'Queen Mary' from the tender at Greenock.

Several days later that same tender brought Mr. Churchill and all the Chiefs of Staff to the ship which then was under way before the tender returned to the shore. All the bigwigs were en route to meet President Roosevelt at the Chateau Frontenac, Quebec. We had absolutely millpond conditions all the way across the Atlantic and were escorted by two Tribal Class Destroyers and a County Class Cruiser who were replaced halfway across by three similar ships We never saw Churchill en route but Air Marshal Tedder and Field Marshal Lord Alanbrooke chatted to us daily as we strolled round the Boat Deck. It was most exhilarating to go right forward on "c" deck and stand at an angle of 30 degrees, held up by the wind as the ship proceeded at over 30 knots. The food on board was superb, the ship being victualled in New York.

Typically, on arrival at Halifax,we were prohibited from disembarking "For Security Reasons" whilst the local paper trumpeted the PM's arrival to the world at large. We disembarked the following day at New York and reached Montreal by train. We stayed for the permitted two "weeks in Dorval Inn at the airport but then had to find accommodation for ourselves in town. We had to leave our phone number with "Ops" who called when they wanted to send us on a "delivery". I was very lucky with my "digs" at 495 Argyle Avenue, Westmount in Montreal. So desperately were Liberators required that my first delivery was a Mitchell which took place from 12 Nov to 24 Nov 1944. We set off in a snow storm and after 2~hrs. reached Mont Joli where we remained for six days snowbound. "Ops" would be pleased to record us as en route (Statistics mattered).

On 18th we set off for Goose Bay Labrador not Gander Newfoundland as originally scheduled. On 20th a USAAF LIberator had crashed and we were sent on a three hours search together with several other aircraft. lt was found. We then were briefed about the entrance to Bluie West One Greenland. We were shown a film several times to be able to determine which of three Fjords was that which· would end up at Bluie West One. The wrong choice would result in a crash because the fjords were too narrow to allow turning. The airstrip was cut into a glacier. Landing was effected into the glacier, take-off was off the glacier towards the bay. To fly to Reykjavik, Iceland meant climbing in tight circles over the bay to 11,000ft then heading east. The powerful Mitchell was a handy aircraft to be in. My most vivid memory of Greenland was the purity of the air encouraging the thought that stretching the hand would result in touching the stars. I slept that night fully clothed under six blankets in a temperature of 26 below Zero Celsius. Before take-off a powerful heater with three output tubes was in operation for an hour, one outlet in each engine, the third into the cockpit to thaw out the aircraft! Five hours flying brought us to Iceland where we were diverted to Meek's Field, Keflavik. The following morning the most unusual briefing took place.

We were bound for Prestwick some 5 hours away as were 50 Flying Fortresses of the USAAF. We attended their briefing to be told to SELL our aircraft if we landed in Sweden but to destroy it if we reached France, or Spain. The immediate post-war Swedish civilian airline was fully equipped with Fortress Aircraft! The reason for the peculiar briefing was that the Yanks flew on radio beams where deviation either side of the solid note resulted in Morse Code "A" or "N". The Germans stationed a submarine off the North of Scotland and "bent" the Stornoway beam into the Stavanger (Norway) beam and the Yanks followed blindly "ON THE BEAM" hence the Swedish briefing. Both beams used identity letters ST in Morse.

Promotion to Flight Lieutenant came in December 1944. My return to Montreal was by "Aquitania" to New York Then train. A month after beginning my first delivery I crewed with Alan Flowers and Ken Lebeau for the first Liberator delivery. This was via Nassau, Bermuda, The Azores, Rabat (Morocco) to Maison Blanche Algiers, returning by USATC via Casablanca, the Azores, Newfoundland, New York thence by civil airline (Colonial) to Dorval. One month later, with the same pilots we delivered another Liberator via Bermuda and the Azores to Prestwick and returned by BOAC(British Overseas Air Corporation) now British Airways flying via Reykjavik, Goose Bay to Dorval. One week later with the same pilots in another Liberator we set off for Bermuda but were diverted to Elisabeth City, North Carolina because of high winds. We reached Bermuda. next day, and that night around midnight went off for the Azores and two days later arrived at Prestwick where we managed to get six days leave. We then were ordered to take a Liberator from Prestwick to India.

Our first stop was Castel Benito, Libya, which meant flying south over France then the Mediterranean. The trip was over 11hrs.The next stop was Lydda, Palestine. Here we picked up a ground staff wireless operator whose job was to check the various Radio stations between Lydda and Shaibah, Iraq, our next stop. lt was only when we were in the truck going for debriefing that I discovered that the extra lad was one of the kids I played with when at primary school! Navigators went on board the LIB through the nose wheel area and were isolated from the flight deck, hence no contact with anyone except by Inter com. An overnight stop at Shaibah only a few miles from Basra was as long as we fancied because of the heat. We actually went to the camp cinema that night, and the following morning set off for Karachi. Next morning we had a "runaway" propellor in the midst of our take-off and were very lucky to stop just short of the end of the runway. We finally delivered the Liberator to Salawas near Jodhpur and were billeted overnight in the Maharajah's Palace. This building had a dome which was made out of pure gold, and was firmly imprinted in my mind because at dinner each of us had a Bearer behind his chair and as soon as you had taken the last bite the plate was whipped away! This was my only night spent in a palace.

We flew from Jodhpur to Karachi in a Dakota of Indian National Airways and returned to Montreal in a Liberator of 231 Squadron stopping at Cairo then Rabat then Azores then Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, and seven days later we were off again delivering a Liberator to Maison Blanche, Algiers, going via Gander, Lagens (Azores) and Rabat. Our return journey was different in that we flew in a Dakota of 525 Squadron to Lyneham then by night sleeper from Euston to Kilmarnock on the "Ghost Train" so named because it was not on any timetable. Then again on the super Aquitania to New York then train to Montreal. Three weeks later this time without Ken Lebeau but with F/O Mowat we did a further delivery via Bermuda and Lagens to Prestwick and the return trip to New York was in the Queen Elizabeth but this ship was real utility compared to the "Mary". On my return to base I was transferred to 231 Squadron and flew with civilian pilots and Wireless Operators, usually being the only RAF person in the crew. My usual Pilots were Walt Davidson and Ed Kern. Walt was an ex-wrestler/Bush Pilot; Ed was a Civilian Airline Pilot. Frequently our wireless op. was Ronnie Snow.

Following several similar mid-ferry flights, we took off from Nassau shortly after midnight on one occasion bound for Piarco, Trinidad, flying time 91/2 hours, and later that day reached Belem, Brazil, in a further 7 hours. Next day we flew to Natal, Brazil, where we saw the 'Lancastrian' (a modified Lancaster) arrive on the proving flight establishing the route for British South American Airways. This aircraft was flown by Capt. O.P. .Jones the Chief Pilot of pre-war Imperial Airways. As befits such a person, he stepped out of the aircraft immaculate in his navy-blue uniform, sporting of course, his goatee beard. The Yanks were impressed!"

No.231 Squadron had been reformed at Dorval (Montreal) on 8th September 1944 from 45 Group Communications Squadron; with the main task of ferrying US and Canadian built aircraft across the Atlantic. It had various other duties however, including conveying V.I.P. passengers around the world. Some of the VIP trips mounted were flying Mr. Churchill to Moscow also to Chungking. Mr. Atlee and Others to Potsdam and to San Francisco for the opening of the United Nations and other important International Meetings. Wing Commander Willie Bidell flying 'Commando' (RY-3) crashed off the Azores on his way back to Montreal after a Moscow trip with PM Mr. Churchill.

My V.I.P.trip was to pick up our "Boss" Air Vice-Marshal George Beamish who was on a tour of 45 Group and in Sydney, Australia, the Skymaster he was using was purloined by Air Chief·Marshal Cochrane C-in-C Transport Command who gave up his Lancastrian to our "Boss" who then radioed for one of his V I P aircraft to meet him at Honolulu. The squadron had two C-54 Skymaster aircraft loaned to us by General EIisenhower for V.I.P. duties and, of course they were beautifully appointed hence the attraction for the C-in-C! Flying with Captain Don Teel OBE, First Officer Littlejohn, Ronnie Snow on radio, I navigated our best V.l.P. Liberator "Marco Polo" from Montreal to San Diego in 13~hrs.using the internal civil beams(compulsory),then using Sun lines and 5-star fixes to Honolulu in 12hrs.and after 6 hours sleep, again using 5-star fixes airborne for 13hrs.back to San Diego and by beam for Montreal. Among the passengers was Group Captain Cheshire V.C. returning to report to the War Cabinet having observed the dropping of the Atomic Bomb on Japan. The aircraft was a LB-30 which was named after it had taken Churchill to Chungking and then to Moscow and back to London. It cruised at some 25 knots faster than the B24, and was a treat to work in. All 231 Squadron Liberators were built as passenger carrying aircraft, having the navigation position behind the pilots on the flight deck frequently having the navigator's table doubling as the top of the refrigerator in which we usually had a fair supply of tinned fruit juice and fruit. We also had a little stove in the tail on which we (usually the navigator) fried eggs as required. At most stops we replenished our coffee thermos flasks. To be sure, we looked after ourselves!

On my final South Atlantic Ferry we had to stop our inboard port engine and I had to quickly work out whether to return to Ascension or continue to Natal. We were a few miles past the Point of No Return so proceeded to Brazil where repairs were speedily carried out. The significance of this episode was that three years earlier on the same date, Bob Coffman(2nd Pilot) and Ronnie Snow (Wireless/Op) were rescued after 9 days adrift on a ice-floe having crashed in a Hampden bomber which they were ferrying from UK to Canada. They only survived because a Greenland trawler drifted past them with engine trouble. They did not fancy dropping into the South Atlantic! On those Ferries when the pilot was Walt Davidson, he insisted on paying all hotel and mess bills and then he gave me the receipts so that I was reimbursed on return to Dorval. My F/Lt. pay was $90 a month his was greatly in excess of that amount.

Occasionally and completely against orders we flew over the French Penal Colony Devil's Island. I have a picture of it. Very early in my ferrying career I began collecting paper money from those places at which we landed .. Most of us did. The paper notes were sellotaped to each other and collectively became known as a "Short Snorter" and had to be carried everywhere because, if you were in a bar and failed to produce it you had to pay for the drinks of everyone who could!

It was almost inevitable, that delivering aircraft and people from country to country, continent to continent, over a prolonged period would produce numerous close shaves and near-misses. For example on one occasion, when approaching the Azores and joining the circuit as instructed, we immediately had to take violent evasion action to miss a USAAF C-46 'Commando' going around the wrong way. However, a more serious event occurred in 1946.

On 11th April 1946 practising flapless three-engine landings at night using the emergency runway at Woodbridge in Suffolk in a 'York' we tried to overshoot after bouncing on the runway. Unfortunately our engineer crammed on full power on all three engines thus increasing the lift on the wing with the two engines working, giving us the choice of hitting the Control Tower or the woods because the aircraft did not respond and climb. The result was that the six of us were miraculously out of the blazing aircraft and some 100 yards from it. George Brooks died very shortly after we got to hospital in Ipswich, the rest of us were lucky to be alive.

After three days in hospital at Ipswich Tony Taylor, Dickie Boyd and I were transferred to Ward Ten RAF Hospital, Ely, which turned out to be a MADHOUSE! We had just been installed in beds half-way down the Nissan Hut which held 36 beds when the two German POW orderlies moved the table to the side then two guys in wheel chairs each with a leg stuck out in front went careering to the bottom of the ward ,turned then raced back to the other end where another guy had a stop-watch and yet an another was calling the "0dds " This wheel-chair racing was a regular feature on the afternoons when the ward sister----Sister Mac was off. Sister MacGregor (MAC) was BOSS and nobody but nobody stepped out of line when she was on - - - After my third operation, I was told she sat by my bed for four hours until I regained consciousness to ensure that none of the apparatus attached to me was disturbed. She actually smiled when I said "Hello". Ward Ten had an awful reputation and only a few of the Nursing Sisters were assigned to it. My sojourn lasted from April 1946 till February 1948 but Tony and Dickie were released after six weeks.

Another episode I recall was when Jimmy Walters, Bill Dobson and I were all "mobile" at the same time (very infrequently). We walked down to the "Local" named "The Rifleman's Arms" Jimmy in a wheel chair which I pushed with my serviceable left hand, and Bill on crutches. My right arm was enclosed in plaster and this plaster was wrapped round my body to support a post which held the arm up. I had had a civvy suit altered so that I could wear the jacket and waistcoat thus disguising the two stones of plaster. It was a Friday and the pub was quite busy, but a path was made for us to get in. Almost instantly, Bill grabbed three darts and fired them at me. They stuck in the plaster causing consternation among those unaware of the position! We spent no money that night!

During my time with 45 Group from September1944 to January 1946 I was only on parade once. That was on Armistice Day 1945 when an enormously long body of Canadian Navy Army and Air Force personnel together with about seventy 45 Group Aircrew marched (or in our case shuffled) along a stretch of St. Catherine Street, Montreal, then down Windsor Street to the saluting base on a rather damp morning. We were led by the Dorval Station Commander Group Captain Brown whom very few of us had ever seen before. A short distance from the dais he let it be known that as we approached he wished us to revert to the marching of Initial Training days i.e. arms shoulder high in order not to let "old George" down. "Old George" was Air Vice Marshal George Beamish commanding 45 Group. Pre-war he was an Irish Rugby International.

Sleeves were hastily rubbed against buttons which had not seen polish for years, caps were adjusted, and a few yards from the saluting base a motley crew of scruffs became a highly efficient unit which swept past to a tremendous round of applause resulting in the Monday edition of the "Montreal Gazette" (the local Scotsman) coming out with 2-inch banner headlines on the front page "RAF-ERS STEAL SHOW"

Because we moved so quickly and frequently from country to country and indeed, continent to continent, we had cards noting which inoculations and vaccinations had been administered and when. Yellow Fever was by far the most awkward! We also carried Canadian Passports.

Carrying things reminds me that as Navigator one had rather a large satchel with Charts, Airport Information Astro Tables and your Computer etc. and a fairly awkward item ... a SEXTANT in its case. Transferring from one aircraft to another meant that in one hand you had your personal luggage and in the other the Sextant on your wrist and the Nav-bag in your hand. The bonus was that no prying eyes (Customs) was allowed to look inside thus the odd item evaded them! Incidentally, on one leg from the Azores I did a part of the Navigation along with an American. He was quite mesmerised by my Astro to the extent that he gave me his spare computer which I have to this day.

Bolinbroke - Canadian version of the Bristol Blenheim
LB-30 - The original B24 Liberator (a pre-war civil airliner.
Mid-Ferry - Mid-Atlantic route covering Newfoundland, Labrador, Azores, Morocco, Egypt & India.
SA Ferry - South Atlantic route covering Bermuda, Nassau, Miami, Trinidad, Brazil, Ascension Island, Accra.

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