Memories of 1943 (Ronald Gayner)

 Ronald Gayner [Courtesy of Dick Gayner]

“It was a long time ago, and funny how we remember the things that happened way back, yet we sometimes have a job to remember what happened yesterday.

It was in 1943 and I was a 23-year-old airman in the Royal Air Force stationed on an airfield near Cambridge. One afternoon, when off duty, two mates and myself cycled to Huntingdon for our usual meal, a real treat at a restaurant, where we could get bacon, eggs and chips. We didn’t have meals on camp like that as eggs were few and far between in wartime.

After our meal we got on our bikes and cycled to St Ives, a small country town on the Great Ouse a few miles away where we hired a small rowing boat and enjoyed ourselves until, typically, whilst changing places in the boat we promptly fell in! No harm done, the water was not that deep, so we made our way to the bank to dry out in the sunshine. We must have fallen asleep as when we awoke it was getting late. We took our time getting back to camp on the then quiet country roads and it was getting dark when we got there.

We were all on duty that night as the first of our aircraft was returning from operations. One of the engines we noted was on fire, and there was increased activity on the airfield with fire tenders getting into position.

The Halifax aircraft that was on fire made an emergency landing, not on the runway but on the grass to one side so as not to block the approach for other aircraft. The pilot, a Canadian, isolated his aircraft away from other aircraft on the ground and he and his crew made a rapid exit, even before the aircraft had stopped moving and we saw them running on the wings and dropping down to the ground.

The plane was left to burn itself out and the following morning we went out to the remains to see if there was anything left of our aerial camera to salvage, but no. At least the crew were safe.

That is one recollection of our life as RAF photographers on busy Pathfinder squadrons. Usually we had twenty to thirty aircraft, mostly Lancasters, on which to fit and maintain cameras. It was an obstacle course on board, pushing your way through the fuselage past the other airmen and WAAF’s all doing their technical tasks in a confined space. The heroes were the armourers, loading the bombs with their winches, in the heat of a summer afternoon. Oh boy they worked hard !

Our everlasting gratitude goes to the young men who flew those planes at night on operations, some never to return, but that’s another story”.

Published with the kind permission of Ronald and Dick Gayner