“What did you do in the war Dad?”
January 19, 2017 § Leave a comment
Thousands of youngsters growing up in the late 1940s and early 50s regularly asked the question, “what did you do in the war Dad?”, I know I did, on a regular basis too, but answers were few and far between in those days!
My dad, Wanford Griffiths, yes, that’s right Wanford, a name dad hated, in consequence of that he told everyone his name was Wal’, short for Walter or so they thought. At his funeral in 1988 several members of the congregation thought they were at the wrong funeral when the vicar began talking about Wanford as they all knew him as Wal’. He was born at 52 Lord Street, Palfrey in June 1918, the youngest of four children of Frank Hubert and Elizabeth Griffiths. When he joined up in 1939 it was his intention to join the Navy…….so where did he finish up for the next six years……..the RAF!
The battered RAF wallet that Dad carried throughout WW2 and contains the pictures of the two women in his life, one just a dream and the other a reality! On the right is my Mom, Hilda Millicent (nee Moseley) and the other was his favourite Hollywood film star, Deanna Durbin.
Dad attended Palfrey Schools and officially left when he was fourteen although he hadn’t attended regularly since the age of twelve. His eldest brother by some seventeen years, Frank junior, was an engine driver like their father Frank senior, originally based at Bescot he later moved to Saltley shed, dad regularly “played the wag” and went with Frank and his fireman on many journeys all around the Midlands and much further afield. One memorable route dad told me about was the fast night freight train from Birmingham to Carlisle, usually hauled by a Black Five loco’. Dad commented, “How our Frank got away with me on the footplate I’ll never know, but he did time and time again, great times though, I wouldn’t swop them for anything, I particularly loved the run in the winter time, magic.” With this grounding one would think my Dad was a natural to become a train driver, but no, he wanted to go into engineering which is exactly what he did, starting at Alfred Stanley Limited on the Wednesbury Road. I am not sure how long he work for Stanleys but by the outbreak of WW2 he was employed at the precision engineers, Aldridge Tool & Engineering Limited in Whetstone Lane, Aldridge, who he worked for until his retirement in 1983. As the world prepared for the second war in twenty-five years, dad was called up on the 24th July 1939 and enlisted as an AC2 at RAF Cranfield in Bedfordshire.
He remained at RAF Cranfield until 7th May 1940 where he joined 101 Squadron as an AC1 mechanic/fitter on Blenheim IV bombers. With the war now gaining momentum after the period known as the “phoney war” Dad was seconded to 33 Squadron and departed for the middle east on the 29th December 1940. This would be the last time his feet would touch British soil until October 1944.
It is difficult to piece together the exact movements of my father in chronological order as the war was now continuing at a rapid pace. After arriving at Fuka in Egypt in early January 1941 they then proceeded to the airbase at Amriya near to Alexandria. Shortly after arriving in Egypt 33 Squadron were then sent to Greece arriving at Eleusis in February 1941.
The picture below was taken at Larissa in early 1941 and dad wrote on the back, “Harry, Bandy, George and myself”.
Pilots of 33 Squadron RAF, at Larissa, Greece, with Hawker Hurricane Mark I, V7419.Standing (left to right); Pilot Officers W Winsland, R Dunscombe, (p.o.w 22 May 41) ,C A C Cheatham (k.i.a. 15 April 41), P R W Wickham, Flying Officers D T Moir, H J Starrett (died of burns 22 April 41). Sitting (left to right) Flying Officer E J “Timber” Woods (k.i.a. 17 June 41), Flying Officer F Holman (k.i.a. 20 May 41), Flight Lieutenant A M Young Flying Officer V C “Woody” Woodward, Squadron Leader M St J “Pat” Pattle (Squadron CO) Flying Officer E H “Dixie” Dean, Flight Lieutenants J M “Pop” Littler, G Rumsey (Squadron Adjutant), Pilot Officer A R Butcher (p.o.w. 22 May 41).The ground crew of 9MU 33 Squadron. Dad is seated in the middle of the picture with his mop of auburn hair. Sitting on the ground in the bottom left is Harry Klein, one of the three men who escaped from Crete with dad.
Dad was with 80 Squadron by accident, he should have been with 33 Squadron but in the general melee several ground crew got separated and came across 80 Squadron who they stayed with until things calmed down and they could try to find the units they were supposed to be attached to. At this time the famous author Roald Dahl was in both 80 and 33 Squadrons, quite how he got his 6 foot 6 inch frame into the cockpit of a Hawker Hurricane is a good question. Dahl’s nickname was “Lofty”, rather unsurprisingly, and although several of Dad’s pictures have a Lofty on them it is sadly is not the famous author.
In early 1941 Germany decided the the island of Crete was an important stepping stone for access to North Africa and they began a determined effort to take it. With the “lost” ground crews now back with their correct units, 33 and 30 Squadron arrived at Maleme aerodrome on Crete in April of 1941. The Squadron Leader of 33 was the South African pilot Marmaduke Thomas St. John Pattle, always known as Pat Pattle who was one of the leading pilots of WW2. He was killed on the 21st April 1941 during the battle for the island
Crete was certainly where my Dad saw the worst that war could offer. “Absolute carnage” was his comment, “you can’t believe what we saw son and I just hope you never have to see anything like it” he would say to me in later life. Vastly outnumbered by the occupying German forces in every department who just continued to drop more and more troops onto the island. Operation Mercury as it was known, was a costly exercise for the German forces who lost almost 4,500 men killed with half that total seriously wounded and they made the civilians of Crete as well as the remaining Allied forces pay for it later. For the remainder of WW2 Hitler would never again use a mass parachute drop. The attacking German aircraft deliberately avoided the runway at Maleme to allow their gliders and aircraft to land when the time came. The airfield perimeter was heavily bombed and shot up by the strafing fighters and the area where the ground crew had been was none existent and the men took refuge where the could. As they sheltered from the mayhem, troop carriers above them were discharging their loads by the hundreds. The allies called the ‘chutes “brollies” and they saw that they were opening at around 300 feet, much to low for safety. Many ‘chutes opened to soon and became entangled on the tailpane of the aircraft the unfortunates had exited from seconds earlier. A great many were also struck by the aircraft flying behind. Hence Dad’s comment on “seeing bodies and bits of bodies everywhere”. The map below shows the precarious situation 30 and 33 Squadron found themselves in on 20 May 1941. The red and green circles show their positions. The aerodrome at the top of the map was Maleme where both squadrons operated from.Above, the armband worn by the invading German troops.
The battle for the island lasted from 20 May to the 1st June and many Allied troops finished the war as POWs while others managed to escape. The few aircraft that remained on Crete had left for Egypt and when all was lost the remaining aircrew were told it was “every man for himself”. Dad, along with three others, didn’t need telling twice and the quartet set off for the mountains. After many close shaves they eventually reached Sfakia on the south coast about 50 miles away after travelling mainly at night to avoid the increasing German patrols. Waiting at Sfakia were three ships, one of which they boarded, HMS Morseby, and at 0330hours the ship set sail for Alexandria in Eygpt. Throughout the trip HMS Morseby was constantly harassed by the Luftwaffe, in particular six Junkers 88s who were constantly dive bombing the ship, fortunately with little success. Some ten hours later the ship docked in Alexandria. I remember dad telling me that as he walked along the quayside he heard a voice shout, “worro Wal’, what brings you here?”. Dad looked in the direction of the voice to see an old pal in Army uniform who went to Palfrey School and lived in Cobden Street. Dad couldn’t believe it and said “even living just down the road from this chap I hadn’t seen him since the day we left school and I bump into him here”, amazing”.
All the action that Dad, and his comrades had been through, it was bacteria and a fly that laid him low for a few months with diptheria closely followed by maleria. He was admitted to 63rd General Hospital in Heliopolis and remained there until he was well enough to return to duty in North Africa.The hospital menu for Christmas Day 1941………..crikey, they weren’t eating this good back in Palfrey before the war!
There follows a mainly photographic record of Dad’s movements through the remaining years of the war which I hope you will find interesting.Above are the Cretan family who lived in the mountains and helped four airmen in their escape. They prepared a meal for them of chicken and rice, Dad said it was manna from heaven. This family took a huge risk in helping Allied forces, if they had been discovered doing so the brutal Nazi reprisals would have meant certain death.
Not known where this picture was taken but probably in Greece or Crete in 1941.This picture even has the personnel written on it, from left to right, Dad, Fred Rymers, Bill Brewer, Robert “Smudger” Smith (d. 2004), Flash Shakespeare (sitting), Buck Taylor and Bick Bicknell. Dad, always the joker wrote on the back, “Me and the lads cooking up our grub during our gallant Retreat No. 3, note the interesting landscape”.Taken in July 1942 in Egypt, on the back is written “The finishing touches to an engine change, I pinched the hat of an officer for the snap. Standing near airscrew with me Sam Izzard, behind me in cockpit Nollie Bicknell and Corp. Doug Shelley”. The latter was from Willenhall.Written on the back, “Maintenance Section 33 Sq. stop for our grub at Sidi Haneish. The officer on the motorbike was the one that got me the whisky. See how we travel, the plush Pullman coaches we live in are hidden behind the trucks!”“Giving a ground test to one our kites in the W. Desert July 1942.”On the back of this picture is written, “Bill Brewer, myself, Cpl. Doug Shelley from Willenhall and Fred Rymers. Our hair was all cut by the same barber but he had no scissors so did it with a knife.”I hope no one takes offence at this picture on two counts but it does show what the Allied troops thought of the Nazi leader!Even in dereliction warplanes could be deadly. The wreckage of two ME 109s at El Alamein looks innocent enough but it cost the life of one of Dad’s mates when he jumped into the cockpit not knowing it was booby trapped. He was killed outright in the ensuing explosion.The wreckage of another ME109E at El Alamein.A German ME109G which was flown by Italians and captured at Pachino, Sicily on 14th September 1943. It was flown by the 3rd Gruppo Regia Aeronautica and is identified by the red and black devil insignia on the engine cowling, its original markings now covered with RAF roundels.A captured ME109F from Lentinni West, Sicily on 18th September 1943. In early December 2017 an aviation historian, Franck Benoiton from Italy, contacted me regarding the photo above to tell me my details concerning the aircraft were wrong and I am pleased to correct my error. Franck tells me the aircraft was “Black 13” of 2.(H)/14 reconnaissance unit and not as I thought an aircraft of JG27. He tells me at the time my Dad took the photo the aircraft was flown by the South African Air Force No.1 Squadron and bears the insignia “JACK-AX” on the fuselage and the BSK gun camera can clearly be seen on the leading edge of the wing. Thank you Franck, I bow to your superior knowledge.An Italian Aer Macchi C202 fetched from Lentinni East, Sicily on 19th September 1941.
Sicily 1944, not long to go now……but I wonder if when this photo was taken, Dad and the other lads knew they would be back in England for the first time in over four years later that year………and in Dad’s case, a quick march up to the alter!
Dad’s RAF Service and Release Book that details his career for the past four years. In it the RAF clerks managed to get his name wrong, calling him Warford, “sounds like a rat poison” was his dry comment, it also states he was to be married to Miss Hilda M. Macluley when it was Miss Hilda M. Moseley! His RAF number can be seen and he always referred to it as his lucky number. Whenever numbers were required for the pools, or raffles dad chose combinations from the six numbers. He never had any success with them but always said “but they WERE lucky………when it really mattered.”Although Dad rarely commented about his war service other than “Well, it had to be done,” I am very proud of his contribution back then and so were the RAF. The medals he was awarded rarely saw the light of day until my Mom passed them to me
He arrived back in Blighty in mid-October, rushed back to Walsall and at 12 noon on the 11th November 1944 he married my Mom at St. Michael’s Church, Caldmore. Dad joked in later years he got married on Armistice Day so he would never forget their anniversary!
Now, for me, this is the really sad bit, something which even now fills me with anger when I think of it and in some ways I am ashamed to tell the tale and speak ill of the dead but it is true!
Dad got married in his RAF uniform and there was good reason for it, he had no other clothes. On his return to Walsall he called first at 226 Sandwell Street to see my Mom and my grandparents, William and Elizabeth Moseley he then went down to his home at 52 Lord Street, Palfrey. When he went to his room which he shared with elder brother Sidney (captured at Dunkirk in 1940 and POW until 1945) he opened the wardrobe they shared to find it empty of all of their belongings. He asked his father and step-mother where they were, his father said, “I didn’t think either of you would get back so I sold ’em.” Unbelievable but sadly true. To make matters worse, some days later his father passed a sheet of paper over to Dad and on opening it he found it was a bill for the cigarettes etc that his father had sent him during the war years, some of which he got and many he hadn’t. When he told me this story I asked, “did you pay it Dad?” and he replied…….“I did son, right down to the last bloody farthing………the miserable old bugger, that was your granddad!”
Fortunately it seems the mean and selfish genes in the Griffiths family were solely attributed to Frank Griffiths senior as I have not come across anyone else in the family with a similar disposition…. thank goodness!
In later years my Dad, nor his elder brother Sidney who had a very difficult five years as a POW in Stalag XX-A at Torun in Poland, never had any animosity against Germans. Towards the end of dad’s life I asked him if he thought much about all those who never came back. He replied, “Of course, rarely a day goes by when I think don’t think of them, I still see them, I still see the bodies and I can still smell them! It doesn’t go away. Poor buggers”, and that was after 40 years plus! One Saturday morning around 1982 a work colleague from Aldridge Tool & Engineering went on holiday to Crete and bought back a phial of coloured sand for dad. Men of his generation rarely showed their emotions but that Saturday morning I saw him do so. He swallowed deeply and with a croaky voice and the phial of sand in his hand said, “if you could see the blood I’ve seen soak into this damn sand……”, and then he recomposed himself and it was forgotten until next time!
Wanford (Wal’) Griffiths, born 8th June 1918 and died on Friday 29th July 1988 from bronchial pneumonia aged just 70 and as I approach the same age in May 2017 I thought it was an appropriate time to post his story.
© John Griffiths 2017