My Stirling Memories

Rear Gunner on Stirlings, 199, 620 & 299 Squadrons

I was born in January 1924, just six years after World War One. My father had served in the army in France with the Royal Field Artillery and had been gassed in the trenches. I was the younger of two boys; my brother had already joined the RAF and was training to be a Radio Observer by the time I was old enough to be called up. The RAF was a natural choice for me, I didn’t fancy traipsing through the mud as my father had done, and I was a poor sailor and suffered dreadfully from sea sickness.

England had already been at war with Germany for over two years when I signed up at Euston House in London in December 1942, putting my date of birth down as 1923. This “error” was later rectified within my service record when I turned 18.

Barry ITW Bridlington December 1942

Recommended for training as an Air Gunner, I first attended the Initial Training Wing at Bridlington on the East coast. There was no RAF station as such there; recruits were accommodated in requisitioned houses along the sea front. Ours was much run down with the billets upstairs and a mess room on the floor below. I wanted to ensure that I got the best bed space and so was the first up the stairs, this was almost my undoing because in my eagerness, I failed to notice the rotten floor boards and fell straight through, landing on a large table on the floor below. No broken bones but a very large sliver of wood through my arm, which when removed excused me from marching for the duration of the course, much to my companion’s annoyance!

In March I was re-classified as LAC, and then in May I went on to No 7 Gunnery School at Stormy Down to start my gunnery training course, number 103.

Stormy Down was a grass airfield in South Wales and was renowned for vicious cross winds which made the gunnery training in Armstrong Whitworth Whitleys and Boulton & Paul Defiants quite an exciting affair. Here we learned our trade. We received instruction on .303 Browning machine guns, hydraulically operated gun turrets, predictive aiming, different types of ammunition and fuses. Aircraft recognition was also taught.  The gunnery range was in the sand dunes. Here we fired a trailer mounted Frazer Nash power operated four gun turret at a moving target on rails with a silhouette of an enemy aircraft mounted on it.  I must have done quite well, because at the end of this part of my training I was recommended for a commission.

In true forces fashion, taking up my commission was a strange affair, I first had to be discharged from the RAF, before re-joining the RAFVR as a commissioned officer. I was duly discharged on the 7th of May and joined the RAFVR as a Pilot Officer on the 8th, the same day as I qualified as an air gunner.

From here it was off to OTU at Little Horewood, on Wellingtons and OCU at Stradishawl again training in Wellingtons.

In August, I joined my first operational squadron, 199 at Lakenheath. Here I only manage two and a half hours flying time in Short Stirling Mk1’s  before being posted again three days later, this time to 620 squadron at Chedburgh, which was equipped with MkIII’s. Here we crewed up in earnest, a most informal affair where we milled around together in a hangar and chatted, one person had a mate who was a navigator and he in turn knew a flight engineer who was looking for a crew and so on.  Our pilot was F/o Philip Dale, a lovely chap who, because he was not very tall, had some wooden blocks made up and attached to the rudder pedals. We were a very mixed crew. Phil was from Wimbledon, George, the bomb aimer was from Canada, Jonnie the flight engineer was from the East End of London, Vic the mid-upper gunner was French Canadian, Gus our navigator was from Wales and Snowy our wireless operator was from London, as was I.

My Stirling Memories - The crew in front of QS-H (BF503)

Our crew members from left to right in front of QS-H (BF503)
George, Jonnie, Vic, Phil Dale, Gus, Snowy, Barry Massey

November 1943

Over the next few months our crew “visited” many industrial centres in Germany and were also involved in mining operations off the enemy coast. Danger was our ever present companion and a number of our crews failed to return or were involved in landing accidents. It did not do to dwell on empty seats and “what ifs” so most crews kept pretty much to themselves. Friends outside our small group were acquaintances, who “got posted” or just weren’t around anymore.

As a crew, we would visit the local pub and get involved in high jinks, no harm was ever done and we were welcomed by the older locals who often plied us with weak wartime beer. I remember that we had access to a large American Packard motor car; this was adopted as the squadron taxi because it was so big. We would all pile in when off duty and head for the local hostelry, often returning a little the worse for wear. On one occasion we ran off the road and got stuck in a ditch on the way back. The whole flight turned out to extract the car and remove the evidence before the local bobby caught up with us.

Flying as a rear gunner was not a comfortable experience, temperatures could plunge to -40 and the heated suits provided had to be plugged into the aircraft electrical system, more often than not they did not work at all. Gloves were impossible to use and skin would freeze to any metal that it touched. Movement was very restricted and some trips were more than six hours long. All the time, having to stare into a night sky looking for shadows across any stars, and fearful of an unseen attacker.

At the end of November the whole squadron moved to Leicester East. Aircraft were loaded up with spares, and each also carried two ground crew members in addition to their normal crews. The rest of the squadron personnel and equipment went by road and rail. I remember Leicester East as being a dreadful place, wet and very muddy and with only very basic facilities and tented accommodation.

Operations continued, interspersed with other night and day flying activities such as Fighter Affiliation, bombing practice, low level, cross country navigation, formation flying, engine tests, compass swings and so on. Fighter affiliation consisted of rendezvousing with Hurricanes or Spitfires, which then took it in turn to mount dummy attacks on us. During these the gunners had to keep the skipper informed, and shout out warnings such as “corkscrew right NOW!” At which point Phil would throw the Stirling around in a violent spiral, and we fought gravity and motion, at the same time as trying to bring our guns to bear.

On one occasion we were diverted to an American station because of bad weather. They were very security conscious and would not let us near anything, but they treated us very well. We were extremely well fed with the type of food that we hadn’t seen for years. Unfortunately for me, my bed for the night was a pool table!”

Phil the skipper used to get on the intercom during low level, cross country exercises and say, “Barry, you must be getting very lonely back there, why don’t you come up front?” I hated doing this because it was very scary, especially when he flew between the rows of chimneys at the London Brick Works. There seemed only to be about ten feet to spare on each wing tip! I felt much safer in my turret facing backwards, oblivious to what we were charging towards, until we were past it.

We all carried good luck charms, mine were a small teddy bear and a golliwog made out of pipe-cleaners, the latter would have been frowned upon these days, there were no racial connotations back then, and I believe to this day, that they contributed to the luck that brought our crew safely through.

“Secret Operations” now start to appear in my logbook. These were SOE trips over France and sometimes Norway, carrying arms and supplies to the resistance and at times a mysterious passenger, who parachuted out of the aircraft at a pre-determined position over enemy territory.

In January 1944 our crew was transferred to 299 squadron based at Keevil equipped with the new Stirling MkIV. Now operations over Germany ceased altogether for us, high command had other ideas for us. Our low level, day and night training became intensive and a cloak of secrecy was thrown up.  This time gliders and paratroops were added into the equation. Then on 5th of June we took off on what was to become known as “Operation Tonga” carrying members of the 6th Airborne Division to Normandy. On the next day 6th June “Operation Mallard”, found us towing a Horsa Glider to Normandy. I was able to watch this glider land safely from my position in the tail. One of our aircraft was damaged and crashed into the sea. My logbook states that we had been lucky and had only encountered light flak in the way of resistance. The sight of our warships off the coast, shelling enemy positions, and the endless other smaller boats of the invasion force is one that remains with me to this day.

Following D Day, SOE flights increased, and the reason for all our low flying practice became apparent. These supply drops were conducted at very low level, two to five hundred feet! We approached the target and dropped the canisters on a signal light from the ground. Again from my position I had an excellent view of these leaving the aircraft, and even on occasion the recipients running to retrieve them.

The middle of September again had us towing gliders and dropping paratroops and supplies, this time on Arnhem. Opposition this time was fierce and we lost five aircraft including our Commanding Officer, W/Cdr Peter Newsom Davis, he was only recently engaged and was well respected by all. As a crew we flew to Arnhem three times in four days, on the last of these I was able to return fire at the flack positions, my own small payback for the loss of Peter the day before.

The rest of 1944 was spent flying a mixture of SOE and assorted training. In January 1945 I left the crew and went to Gunnery School at Catfoss to qualify as a gunnery leader. My association with the mighty Stirling had ended. The rest of the crew survived the war and Phil was awarded the Croix de Guerre by General Koenig for our part in supplying the resistance. Phil, of course pointed out that it had been a team effort. Sadly there was only one medal and he, as our skipper got it! I stayed in contact with Phil and Jonnie for years after the war, but age and distance finally won that particular battle, and now I think that I am probably the last surviving member of our crew*.

*Barry Massey passed away peacefully in Devon on 15.11.2013