"And although I was in the RAF I played for the army. In fact, the army played the RAF one day and the army won three nil and I happened to score the try and I almost got court-marshalled the next day. "
I got transferred to a maintenance unit in Palestine which was called Quastina - Q U A S T I N A. I was there for about 23 months and that’s where I was in a maintenance unit, which dealt with aircraft that needed repairs, renovation, or things like that. And we dealt primarily with two-engine bomber called a [Vickers] Wellington. We did have some other aircraft at times, but 95 percent of the work we did was on Wellingtons, which was a tough, light two-engine bomber.
And now and again we would take an aircraft and use that for parts. We’d strip it all down, and use the parts to put in other aircraft. After that programme had been completed, then you had a small crew who went up and tested them, and I was one of those small crews – that’s what I did for about a year. I dealt with primarily the gun turrets and the undercarriages, especially the undercarriages, to make sure they didn’t fold up when they hit the ground, which was fairly frequent that they did.
In that particular unit, we had a commanding officer [CO] who had done two or three tours of ops [operations], who was very much on a knife edge when he first came. By that I mean his nerves were shot as you could well expect, but, he became one of my heroes of the war. He had a crew of about four or five that usually went up to do air tests with him. He’d come down in the morning, and say, “I want Smith, Jones, Robinson, Mugglestone, and Brown.” I’d say, “Where are we going?” He’d say, “We’re going for an air test.”
But Australia happened to be playing New Zealand [in rugby] in Cairo, which was several hundred miles away. So the air test somehow strayed towards Cairo. We landed at Heliopolis, which is just outside – it’s a suburb of Cairo, really. The CO there was a friend of Ellison’s and we used to take the brown tram – because that was the colour – and go down into the middle of Cairo. Go to the El Alamein Club, which is where they built a sports centre in memory of people who were killed at the Battle of El Alamein, and then there was another venue that used to be, before the war, a polo club.
And that’s where a lot of top-class rugby games were played, but if we went with Ellison we’d be going to see some first-class rugby game. Then we’d go back up to Heliopolis and get a free dinner, and then fly back to Palestine. Of course, that would probably be recorded as a 20 or 25 minute air test. He was a big rugby fan, so that was the connection I had with him really, and that’s the reason I went on his particular crew to do the air tests, was because of him.
And on one air test we had to crash land a plane because the undercarriage wouldn’t go down. There were only three of us in the plane at the time. And instead of putting the plane down on the runway, which was - I believe it was concrete - many planes came down like that and if the undercarriage collapsed they’d slide it along the runway, but there’s too much friction they’d often explode. So when we came down Ellison told the control tower he was going to put the plane down at the side of 010 runway, and they said, “No, you have to put it down on the runway.”
I could hear Ellison talking and he said, “What rank are you?” “I’m Pilot Officer Smith.” “Well, I’m Squadron Leader Ellison, and I’m telling you we’re putting it down at the side of the runway, not on the runway.” The side of the runway was soft earth, very much like... almost like sand, and it cut down the friction, the plane didn’t... he it landed it beautifully. So three people, including him, got out all in one piece.
And he said to me one day, “We’re going to close the unit down, where would you like transferring to?” And facetiously I said, “Cairo” and I got transferred to RAF Heliopolis which is on the outskirts of Cairo. It’s part of Cairo, actually. And, then I got involved in all the top-class rugby that was going on there. And although I was in the RAF I played for the army. In fact, the army played the RAF one day and the army won three nil and I happened to score the try and I almost got court-marshalled the next day.
Then they picked a team to represent England to play against South Africa or Australia or New Zealand, and I usually played open side flanker. And on one celebrated occasion, both Trevor Foster [a famous Welsh rugby player] and I played in the centre, against South Africa to stop Joubert. I remember that, because he was a brilliant centre. It was a draw. They scored in the last minute, right in the corner. A wing had got away and their goal kicker kicked a goal from the line side to tie the game.
Well, what did I think about the war? Well, people think it’s... well, I often think what was it all for? But some of my... well, not some of my... my best friends, from school who I played rugby with when I was a kid, and we played cricket and cross-country and chased the girls and all those healthy things that you do when you’re a kid.
I talked to a friend of mine, a friend here now, who was a rugby referee, and I told him about my best friend from school who got killed, and he double checked it and I had the wrong date. And this friend of mine, Norman Fox, he was killed when he was 19, so I was 20 at the time. I know where he’s buried; I’ve never been to his grave, and every time I go to England, I say, “I’m going to go to Norman’s grave.” And then when I get there I say, “What’s the point?” I remember him as he was at 18 years of age, which is what he would have been the last time I ever saw him.