Nelson pensioner John Beeching is one of only three men remaining from Britain's Royal Air Force 169 special duties night fighter squadron.
The bomber squadron member who, with help from the Nelson community and beyond, will be heading to London in June for a special memorial service, has written a personal account of his time leading up to the war, and of his close brushes with death as a fighter pilot.
Nelson Mail reporter Tracy Neal has compiled a serial of his story. Today, part one.
It was 1942 and the war had already scoured away the established opulence of the elegant St John's Wood area of London. It was not a part of the city that East Ender John Beeching was used to visiting.
"All the high-class hotels had been taken over to accommodate the recently arrived air crew cadets; the spacious foyers and wide stairways had been stripped of their peacetime trimmings and the thump of new, stiff boots echoed from the now bare walls with a strange and alien resonance," Mr Beeching recalls of a time in his late teens, when flat feet prevented him joining the land-based war effort and he signed up instead for the Royal Air Force.
After being measured up for uniforms, the recruits were taken to Lord's cricket ground where they were photographed – convict-like – for identification cards and then marched off to St John's Wood Hospital for tetanus and typhus inoculations.
"I have never seen so many young and healthy men, or anyone else for that matter, fall over in a dead faint at the sight of their colleagues receiving this fairly innocuous treatment."
Mr Beeching was penniless when he joined the air force. The agony and embarrassment of being poor stayed with him, and for the rest of his life he has managed to keep a little in reserve, even if "precariously little".
"I was always aware of my inborn deficiencies. The prevailing English class system had a way of ensuring that, and to some extent, still has.
"My near-poverty, and to some my almost unintelligible East End London pronunciation of our common language probably made me something of a curiosity to some of the public schoolboys."
War is a great leveller, though, Mr Beeching soon discovered.
It offered a radical departure from the tedium of civilian life, which many willingly relinquished. It also exposed sheltered Brits to people from backgrounds far removed from their own: "Places like Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa."
Bomber Command losses were climbing fast, and Mr Beeching's time in orientation was only a few short weeks. RAF lectures sped up, and by 1942 air crew losses were "really heavy".
"Recruiting was intense because nobody could see into the future."
Young RAF trainees on the initial training course at Stratford got up to the usual mischief typical of many youngsters but there was little time for misconduct away from studies. Most spare time was spent in their rooms, brushing up for the next round of endless exams. Compulsory church parades were held every Sunday.
"From just about as far back as I can remember I have been singularly Godless and I objected strongly to having to attend those incredibly boring church parades and even more boring church services."
With the end of initial training getting nearer, the prospect of becoming airborne became more real. Flying kits were issued, complete with leather flying helmets equipped with headphones.
Those who didn't graduate were re-mustered as air-gunners or wireless operators. Those who did were sent on a 10-hour flight assessment course at Southam, or Ansty near Coventry. It was then that the young pilots became acquainted with the "fragile looking" De Havilland DH82 Tiger Moth.
It was the first time Mr Beeching had ever been close to an aeroplane. He climbed into the rear of the cockpit and the pilot taxied to the takeoff point.
"The engine revs increased to a roar and we bumped across the grass until things suddenly became smooth as we left the ground, turning to the left and climbing slowly to 4000 feet."
To Mr Beeching's dislike, the young sergeant-pilot instructor embarked upon a demonstration of aerial aerobatics which left his young student dangling upside down from his too-long harness. When they landed 20 minutes later, with Mr Beeching "quite air sick", he wondered if he was suited to an airborne career.
His next sortie a few days later was led by a much more considerate pilot. Mr Beeching was soon flying the plane solo and at the end of 10 hours was promoted to lead aircraftsman.
After a period of leave, and with no sign of the war letting up, he was called up for further pilot training.
"The autumn of 1942 crept into early winter. I had by now passed my 19th birthday by a few weeks when a large parade was mustered in front of a sort of open-air but covered theatre stage."
Manchester's Heaton Park, where Mr Beeching was stationed, had been ploughed up and turned into a vegetable patch. His name was called, to his delight, and he joined the list of selected comrades who were bundled into a "wartime, grubby, smoke-impregnated train" on which they rattled north to Glasgow, although no-one at the time told them where they were headed.
They boarded a ship, which had once been a luxury liner, and zig-zagged across a stormy, enemy-ridden Atlantic Ocean for Canada.
"For men who were destined to hurl their winged steeds about the heavens, we made pretty damned poor sailors."
They tied up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Christmas Day, 1942. The war looked like it would go on forever. A few days later Mr Beeching was dispatched on a very long train trip, through the "coldest place on Earth" to Virden, Manitoba, to Number 19 Elementary Flying Training School.
He was soon back behind the controls of a Tiger Moth, modified to withstand the extreme cold by the addition of a perspex canopy and skis instead of wheels.
Injuries included Mr Beeching's lips being frozen to his mouthpiece while trying to talk to the instructor.
"You will have to speak up, Beeching," the instructor said. "I can't make out a word you're saying".
Mr Beeching's efforts to respond only made the situation worse, as his tongue then become frozen to the mouthpiece too. In his desperation, he ripped away chunks of skin while tearing it off.
Elementary training finished 64 hours later, and Mr Beeching graduated to a "bamboo bomber", a twin-engine Cessna AT 17A, which afforded a "delightful" flying experience.
Night-flying, exams and cross-country training followed. Navigation training was aided by using empty Coca-Cola bottles to "bomb" small lakes – the bottles making a wonderful noise as they tumbled downwards.
Mr Beeching took his final test on July 27, 1943. With a grand total of 221 hours and 35 minutes' flying time, he became a qualified Royal Air Force pilot.
Mr Beeching joined the parade of New Zealanders, Brits and Canadians to receive their wings upon graduation.
On September 12, 1943, two days after the German army had seized Rome, he took the long train ride back to Halifax. He had developed an affinity for the Canadian countryside, but as it slipped past he had no regret about the prospect of returning to austere, wartime England.
Arrival saw him back in control of a Tiger Moth for continued flight training, made more exciting by an interlude flying the British fighter trainer, the Miles Master 1. Soon after he was introduced to the Bristol Blenheim, which had become almost obsolete dueto it being little more than a target for the German Luftwaffe's Me109s.
The war raged on, becoming more sinister for Londoners when the Germans started launching V1 rockets at them. The dreaded "doodle-bugs", at first puzzling, were quickly recognised for the terrible destruction they were capable of.
"The V1s emitted an altogether different and unique sound.
"In fact, it wasn't the sound of the flying bombs which alarmed people; it was the sudden lack of it which sent them heading for the nearest cover, generally with very few seconds left."
Mr Beeching said 5800 of the pilotless bombs were fired at England, half of which reached London, killing 9000 people.
Then came Hitler's next weapon – the V2 rocket. Mr Beeching got to see its results at home, late on a sunny afternoon. "I was having tea and a thick slice of "victory" loaf, when a block of houses 200 yards to the west disappeared in a tremendous explosion of smoke and flying rubble. A split second later the sound of the rocket, travelling faster than the speed of sound, hit the neighbourhood.
"The noise of the explosion was heard before the noise of the rocket reached our ears."
Soon after that Mr Beeching was posted to No51 Operational Training Unit in Bedfordshire to fly Bristol Beaufighters – the culmination of a secret, adolescent dream. "In their matt black finish they were menacing, lethal-looking and powerful, and a very far cry from the Tiger Moth."
More training followed, including night flying and preparation for flying at altitude where oxygen is in short supply. He was soon in charge of a revered De Havilland DH98, or Mosquito, fondly referred to as the Wooden Wonder because of its plywood fuselage.
Mr Beeching has fond memories of the antics of his American counterparts, whom he described as "unique", but one event stands out.
While flying over a busy wartime England, Mr Beeching and his navigator Fred Herbert pulled up alongside a B24 Liberator Bomber, which appeared to be flying nowhere by itself, like an "aerial Marie Celeste".
"We dropped down slightly to near the nose, and there, through a small square window, was the entire crew engaged in an energetic game of crap-dice."
The close presence of Mr Beeching's aircraft raised little interest, until one crew member noticed them and waved before returning to his game.
Mr Beeching and Mr Herbert practised using radar, then still in its infancy. They became "reasonably skilled" at getting behind their target aircraft.
While the operator, Mr Herbert, faced rearward, the screens were set up to compensate so that everything appeared to the viewer in its correct sense.
"In other words, if he told me to turn to the right, while the target was actually to his left, then it appeared to him as if the target was indeed coming in from the right."
The two young men, who turned 21 within days of each other, celebrated with an Australian pilot, for it was the Aussies and Kiwis they were most envious of. They regularly received wonderfully large food parcels, and they generously shared their luxuries with the RAF lads.
"The parcels arrived in such abundance that these chaps had them stacked up in columns. `Help yourself mate', they would say, not knowing what a wonderful gesture it was during those straitened times."
Mr Beeching and Mr Herbert were eventually transferred to 169 Squadron, the operational unit at Great Massingham.
New Year, 1945, and the pair personally "carried the war to the enemy" for the first time.
"The Bomber Command raid that night was on Frankfurt-am-Main, although our ordered destination lay much further to the north."
Everyone was quiet at the briefing in a room with a stage, behind which was pinned a series of large-scale maps covering eastern England and the whole of Europe. There were no questions. The commanding officer wished everyone good luck.
"It was only a minute or so before I had both the big Merlin engines started and warming up at a fast idle."
A flick of the navigation lights signalled "chocks away". They taxied out and waited for the green Aldis light to flash from the red-and-white chequered caravan before turning to the centre of the 2000-yard (1829-metre) runway.
"I lined up for takeoff, gently jiggling the throttles forward to the stops as we gathered speed."
They climbed and turned to starboard on their first, long haul to Bremen, northern Germany. They levelled off at 20,000 feet in a clear and empty sky and flew over a frozen Holland, clearly visible by the light of a bright moon. The contemplative silence was broken by Mr Herbert's announcement that a bright light was coming towards them.
"There seemed little point in attempting any sort of violent, evasive action, so we just carried on, turning slightly, keeping a close eye on it like a bird watching an approaching cat."
The mysterious object, which reached their altitude before climbing above them and accelerating at terrific speed, turned out to be a V2 on course for a target in England after being launched from Holland.
The men carried on and reached Germany where "everyone seemed to be tucked up in bed", leaving small chance of doing anything heroic that night.
"Possibly the Germans had run out of aeroplanes as we were only one day past Hitler's great aerial attack on our airfields."
However, way down below and to the east there were thousands of American and German soldiers who were certainly not tucked up in bed. A terrible battle a few days before had left 80,000 American casualties and twice that in the German ranks.
Mr Beeching thought about most of the available British squadrons back home still celebrating New Year's Day.
Several hours later they landed back on home turf.
"We were back on the ground at Great Massingham after three hours and 20 minutes in the air with nothing, apart from the rocket launching, to report to the intelligence officer at our debriefing."
Part 2 next week: Mr Beeching flies his second mission when he is caught in enemy searchlights.
- The Nelson Mail