"Only then did we know definitely that we were going to India. I was excited about it I think because I had never been to India and not many Canadians had been to India, my age anyway in those days and it was a whole new experience which we welcomed at that age I think."
I decided to enlist in the RCAF as distinct from the navy and the army is because my friends were doing so and the air force seemed a more exciting venture than the army. I was stuck in England at the time and the navy, I knew nothing about sailing, very little anyway. So I guess that’s why I joined the RCAF.
But I went down to the recruiting bureau in Montreal with a good friend of mine and we of course all wanted to be pilots or gunners. But that was not to be. For one thing, our eyesight wasn’t good enough they said at that time, this is 1941. And furthermore, they said they have something really exciting for us, something new, something we’d get and we said, “Will it get overseas?” “Yes, sir, it’ll get you overseas right away.” And so we said, “What is it?” “Well, we can’t tell you much about it, we don’t know much about it but it’s got RDF, radio direction finding, and we want you to sign up to do that. And, and then you’ll find out more about it as you go along.” So that’s how I ended up in the air force.
And then they sent us to various universities because we had to learn some basic physics, whether we knew it or not already, we had to take special courses that, 10 or 12 universities across Canada set up to try and teach the new recruits the basic physics and radio before we were sent to the secret school to learn radar itself.
I passed and then they sent us to, it was a pass to Clinton, Ontario, which was an RAF, English, UK, station run by them for the new recruits to teach them all about radar, which was then called, I think I’ve said this already, RDF, radio direction finding. The training was very, very good, expert training and it was secret, so we couldn’t even take our notebooks out of the teaching compound, it was surrounded by a fence and we had to leave our notebooks and everything inside when we left at the end of the day.
We were put on a big troop ship, it was mostly RAF with a sprinkling of Canadian passengers, which set sail for Gouroch, Scotland, and then started going around Ireland and headed south. It turned out, it was headed for South Africa. And it took us several weeks to get to South Africa because there was a lot of German wolf pack submarines around at the time and they took a circuitous route. And we ended up in Durban, South Africa on the other coast. And then in Durban, in my case, I was transshipped, I was in Durban, South Africa, for about 10 days and we got on another ship which was bound for Bombay, for India. Only then did we know definitely that we were going to India. I was excited about it I think because I had never been to India and not many Canadians had been to India, my age anyway in those days and it was a whole new experience which we welcomed at that age I think.
We arrived in Bombay [India] and I was sent to Bangalore [India], inland. Incidentally, Bangalore is now a high tech, what they call a high, one of the high tech capitals of India. In those days, it wasn’t, nothing much there. Bangalore is inland and I was just there awaiting a posting. They didn’t have too much radar equipment ready to be manned in India which wasn’t already being manned. So they sent me on a posting, the British sent me on a posting as a signals officer to a little jungle station called Avadi outside of what was then Madras, it’s now changed its name [Chennai], on the east coast of India. But that was for inland, in the jungle. Been there for a while and then got transferred to the nearby Madras airport, called St. Thomas Mount because of its religious precedence. St. Thomas alleged to have been there many, many years before.
And I was doing assistant signals officer because I didn’t really know the job that well as a signals officer, it’s quite different from radar. And I got fed up waiting and I remember writing to the RAF group captain at Bangalore and saying, “I’m being misemployed and I should be on radar equipment or have a radar posting,” so that quickly got me some results. I got transferred to Ceylon then, it’s now Sri Lanka and got my first real on the Indian sub-continent on Ceylon, my first real radar posting since England.
I was on this tea estate living with a planter, along with somebody else from my station. It was my first experience of course on a tea estate and it was a beautiful spot, a really beautiful spot. But also we were becoming acclimatized to it after several months to the poverty, not on the tea estate but in the surrounding area, poverty and then the heat, I remember the heat. We found the heat almost unbearable at times at certain times of the year. And then the difference of culture.
But we lived in what they called tatty huts, straw huts and we sort of had beds made of linen strips across, that was sort of the mattress part of it. We had mosquito nets, had to have mosquito nets always around our beds at night and tucked in at the bottom because one of the big worries was having being bitten and getting Dengue fever as well as malaria. These are the two bug bearers and practically everyone in the end got one or the other. I got Dengue fever and no one knew much about it, certainly not in Canada but there, they just put you to bed and gave you the equivalent of aspirin and you hoped it would go away and usually it did.
The working conditions… We had workshops on each station, whether they were squadrons or ground stations, workshops with all the test equipment and so on, like cathode ray tubes and then oscilloscopes and various things. I forget a lot of it. And we usually had a senior non-commissioned officer, NCO, who knew far more than we did probably and then some trained technicians, some of the Canadian, some not, who between them were able to keep things going. And in the end, a certain part of the equipment wasn’t functioning and they couldn’t fix it and we used to send off and get replacement parts, sections, whole sections of the radar sets. In the end, they were able to supply to us and we put them on and took away the bad ones. Often these equipment had to be tested, if it was airborne equipment had to be tested in the air, so we did get up with a few flights testing the radar equipment.
I went on one, I remember one long patrol, lasted about 30 hours or more, because we had extra fuel tanks on Catalinas [PBY Catalina flying boat, a fixed wing seaplane]. I ended up on a Catalina squadron, which is doing air/sea rescue work. First off, the west coast of India, up near Karachi, which is now Pakistan, and then a detachment up at, it was off the east coast, our base near Calcutta up the Hooghly River from Calcutta and this lone patrol was down the Bay of Bengal to pick up any survivors or people shot down over the Bay of Bengal by the Japanese. And that was an exciting trip for me because I wasn’t air crew but I volunteered to go up and was glad to and the captain to his credit said, “Another pair of eyes we can always use.”
July 1945 I got posted. I was told in India. I was then in this Red Hills Lake station near Madras and this RAF squadron. I was told that I was repatriated. At that time, all the Canadians all over the globe were suddenly repatriated when the European war came to an end. We were fighting a different war but the Canadians called us all home because they wanted us to join and propose a Pacific adventure if you will, to fight the Japanese in Canadian units. This applied to the radar as well as other parts and to the army.
I was on the ship from India to England, as part of this repatriation thing, when the atomic bomb was dropped, the first one, on the Japanese. And we got very little knowledge of this on our troop ship, we just knew some kind of new type of bomb had been dropped on the Japanese and then a day later or two, another one and before we knew it, the war against the Japanese was over as well. We were still on the high seas headed for England.