Chapter 16: 'Git thar fustest with the mostest'
On the Wings of the Morning
Throughout the first half of 1944 American records show that the 50th TCW’s medical section maintained a ‘very popular’ prophylactic station in Nottingham’s Red Cross building in an effort to keep men free from venereal disease. For those ignorant of the warnings an early treatment room was set up in the SSQ, wherein the most popular reading matter was a special notebook containing the names and addresses of the ladies deemed responsible for spreading the infection! At one point in 1944 the problem became so alarming that both Nottingham and Grantham were placed out of bounds to U.S. servicemen. Throughout the war troops of all nationalities flooded into Nottingham, drawn by its pubs and its reputation as ‘the city of pretty women’, but where there were servicemen there were inevitably also rich pickings for prostitutes. However, most females encountered in the pubs and dance halls simply wanted to forget their drab wartime existence for a while. Amongst the Troop Carrier Groups, it was common knowledge that they were expendable and expected to take upwards of fifty percent casualties in the coming invasion; so many young men, although usually shy and retiring were tempted to live life to the full in their rare moments off before it was too late. The following extract from the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron monthly history is worth quoting in its entirety:
February was a dull and depressing month for the entire squadron. At first sight, the men liked England in general and the camp in particular. The barracks were better than many of the men had occupied ill the States; the food was superior to any that could be found in the surrounding towns. Within a few days, however, the barracks proved, also, to be colder and damper than those in the States, and the food took an undessired drop in quality. Another shock came when all order was issued for the men to turn in their arms. All of the build up to war that had taken place during the squadron’s training period suddenly crashed to the ground in ruins. When the men had to relinquish their guns, they felt that once more they were being treated like rookies instead of soldiers. Other ‘beefs’ the men had were the slowness of mail delivery, the bad weather, with rain and mud most of the time, extra KP and guard duties, English beer and the lack of Whiskey, and a hundred more minor items. Possibly beneath it all were two basic reasons: homesickness and a lack of activity, but even though these might be considered, morale continued to drop.
As usual, the inactivity was caused by the low cloud, rain and snow which covered Britain throughout January and February 1944. In consequence the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron only managed 425 hours flying in February as opposed to 1,240 back in October. The time was spent instead learning RAF and USAAF air traffic control and radio procedures, and in carrying out aerodrome defence exercises with the Home Guard. However, the 81st TCS’s history records that the most difficult task was:
… convincing the vehicle drivers that the British really did drive on the left hand side of the road. On the social side well developed European Theater of War coughs didn’t prevent most of the personnel from enjoying 48 hour passes in London, Glasgow or Edinburgh. Frequent visits to Nottingham enabled even the more sedate members of the squadron to enjoy tile mundane pleasures of the Palais de Danse. Some very pleasant contacts were made. The knack of drinking warm and wellwatered beer was easily acquired, although Scotch at £3-lOs (a bottle) went down a little slower. Outside of the weather, life in the E. T.O. has not been too rough, although the British are endangering international relations with their medieval plumbing systems, or lack of same. The squadron theme song is now ‘Honeybucket Rose’.
Martin Wolfe, a radio operator in the 81st TCS, wrote in his excellent book, Green Light: Men of the 81st Troop Carrier Squadron Tell their Story:
Before many days at Bottesford, our sour mood began to colour our assessment of the British people. Even before we had a chance to meet and talk with them, prejudices and cliches about life in Britain began to jell. For example: there were the British workers on the base whose duty it was to maintain the taxiing strips and nunways. One of them handled an ancient steamroller which became a kind of symbol of ‘Limey’ ineptitude and addiction to moss-covered customs. Most of the time that steamroller would just sit there in the rain. Once in a while, when the weather cleared, you could see the worker who handled it up on the steamroller’s seat, emptying another mug of tea from his thermos. Then, whether he had actually driven it or not, he would carefully shine up the large manufacturer’s plate on tile boiler stack. This steamroller had a sort of Toonerville Trolley device for a pressure governor: two brass balls revolving in a stand near the gauge. When the British worker finished polishing his brass plate, darned if he didn’t begin polishing those brass balls. He and his shiny brass balls became the object of some pretty sarcastic comments.
Private First Class Frank Ehrman, a clerk in the headquarters of the 50th TCW had arrived in October 1943. He recalled:
We stayed at this ‘mud hole’ in Nissen or Quonset huts and our particular group called themselves ‘The 13th Swipers Detachment’. We had to steal ‘coke’ from the coke yard to keep our one and only stove going in order to keep ourselves warm, and even then the fire would go out at night and the barracks were always cold in the morning. We also made moonlight requisitions of other essentials which we felt we needed to survive the ordeal. Cold showers in February, whilst standing in four inches of cold water were normal, and quite invigorating to say the least. Sanitary conditions were very trying. Water had to be carried in buckets to be used in our huts for washing and the British were still using ‘Honey Buckets’ for toilet facilities. The passes to Nottingham made things look a lot better. Nottingham was also a friendly city and gave the Yanks a wonderful reception. I spent a lot of time writing letters home, often to help pass the time. This created problems part of the time, because if you were found in the barracks at night and they needed someone for KP duty the next day, you were it! It didn’t take long to learn the tricks and start making the trip to Nottingham to stay out of the way of 1st Sergeant Frank M. Smith.
If the British approach to life bewildered the Americans the reverse was also true. The stereotypical no-nonsense ‘Yank’ way of doing things was viewed with amusement and admiration by those who worked in close proximity to them. Whereas RAF station commanders at Bottesford were expected to live in quarters next to the Officers’ Mess, the American Colonel’s first order on arrival was to have his bed moved into his office in the headquarters. Bob Williamson witnessed another example:
After a heavy snowfall the cables used by the Direction Finding Station to key our transmitters became unserviceable, but we were able to communicate with them by telephone. Such a breakdown was critical because the DF station played an important part in the success of our bomber missions. The ‘lines’ as we knew them came under the jurisdiction of the Post Office engineers, but after 24 hours they were still unserviceable, so we called upon the Americans for assistance. Boy, did they move! Out came the maps and then a big lumbering vehicle appeared with a large coil of wire mounted on a drum. Off it went through the snow in a direct line towards the DF station, and within a few minutes another vehicle turned up requesting a ‘Limey’ engineer to hook up the wires at the other end. We were just in time to see the cable laying vehicle charging through some poor farmer’s gate that was too narrow to let it through. OB1 was rapidly back on air, but within minutes there were repercussions from the farmer whose gate had disappeared … After a brief interview with an American officer the farmer disappeared, so no doubt he was well compensated!
The Baggaley family worked Beck Farm opposite the HF transmitting station, whose RAF crew charged the 2 volt accumulator for their radio and swapped 120v batteries for butter, eggs and homemade bread. Their youngest son, Maurice, attended the school in Long Bennington and, like the rest of the family, had a pass to allow him through the American checkpoint on Sewstern Lane. It was an exciting time for a young boy. One afternoon he was amazed to see a Piper L-4 spotter plane executing a ‘touch and go’ ahead of him on the lane, and along with other local children who constantly pestered the Americans for chewing gum, he was sometimes allowed into the camp cinema to watch cartoons. Local legend in Bottesford has it that the village stocks were stolen one night by practical jokers. After much protest they mysteriously reappeared, and although no-one ever admitted to it, the roar of a jeep in the dead of night aroused strong suspicions! But even harmless fun sometimes ended in tragedy. Motor transport for visits into Nottingham was plentiful, but the blackout, frequent fog and unfamiliarity with winding country lanes were a real hazard to driving. Because of the problems the Americans often drove their vehicles in convoys, and one night when such a convoy was returning from a dance in Melton, the lead driver lost control on a bend just outside Bottesford. Norah Meglio, formerly Norah Turgoose of Sherwood but now living in New York wrote:
After discharge from the WAAFs following the death of my mother I met my American Air Force husband at the Palais de Danse. I was actually in the second lorry which crashed into the first when it missed a bend in the road and struck a tree. All of the occupants were thrown clear of the vehicles and strewn about the field. The driver of the first lorry was killed and several others were injured. I suffered a broken arm but don’t remember too much else as I was knocked unconscious and woke up in the hospital hours later. The medics had no arm splints due to a shortage, so I was sent home with a leg splint the next morning.
The 436th Troop Carrier Group’s brief time at Bottesford was drawing to a close and in early March the group moved to station 486, Membury, where they now came under the control of the 53rd TCW. The 436th’s replacement, the 440th TCG (comprising the 95th, 96th, 97th and 98th Troop Carrier Squadrons) began arriving by air on March 11th, although the Group Commander, Lieutenant Colonel Frank X. Krebs did not formally took command of the station until the 23rd. Like their predecessors, the Group’s aircraft had flown in from the United States. The long flight over the Atlantic caused some difficulties for Lieutenant John Lottimer of the 97th Troop Carrier Squadron, who missed his landfall in Cornwall and was forced to crash-land in Southern Ireland with no fuel. As usual, the Irish demonstrated their lop-sided neutrality and, rather than interning the crew, secretly drove them to Belfast in unmarked Army cars. There is no record of what the 440th TCG made of Bottesford, but by late March the worst of the winter weather was over and the onset of spring made the surroundings appear far better. The bicycles which had originally resulted in bruises and plaster casts, now came into their own for exploring the countryside. PFC Wally Weinkam of the 50th TCW recalled:
I usually walked to Bottesford because our G.l. bicycles were very heavy and crude. One day an English gentleman stopped and rode me to Bottesford. He gave me his card and invited me to visit him at his home. He was David Lochtie of Beechwood, Bottesford, and his wife’s name was Elizabeth. I spent a number of enjoyable evenings at their house, and on one occasion Elizabeth gave me two eggs. I returned to our hut about midnight and woke up my buddies, Frank Ehrman, Clayton Hesser, Raymond Seaton, Walt Pettit, Julius Meister and Norstein. Norstein crabbed me for waking him up, but we fried the two eggs and the six of us shared them. They were the first fresh eggs any of us had tasted since leaving the U.S.A. – one cannot imagine how delicious they were! The Lochties were very nice to me. David was an executive from a firm in London and had been sent to the Midlands to escape the bombing. He was instrumental in allowing me to purchase a Raleigh bicycle from a shop in the village, and me and Walt Pettit did considerable cycling around the country. One day on the road to Belvoir Castle we stopped to talk to all attractive lady walking her dogs. It happened to be the Duchess of Rutland. She was living in the gatehouse at the time because the house was too costly to heat, and said she grew flowers to help pay the bills.
During a training flight on March 30th a 97th Troop Carrier Squadron C47 flown by Lieutenant Locke suffered a fire in the port engine. Locke and his crew were unable to extinguish the flames and were at far too Iow an altitude to bale out, so he hurriedly looked for a suitable a spot for a forced landing. He chose a site at Derby near an Army ordnance depot. As Locke had hoped, the soldiers saw the plane come down and rushed to his assistance. They were quickly able to put out the flames, and Lieutenant Locke was praised for his cool thinking as was Lieutenant Roznek who had first spotted the fire.
April was an extremely busy month for training. On the night of the 6th the 440th practised assembling in darkness and getting into loose formation. As Bomber Command had found over the past few years, to have hundreds of aircraft milling around in the night skies was extremely dangerous, given the risk of collision: to do so in formation was a new and far riskier departure. The other obstacle was navigating over a blacked-out landscape, but these were crucial skills for the troop carrier crews to master, given that on D-Day paratroopers and equipment would have to be dropped close to their objectives to stand any chance of success. For this reason there was a flurry of practice drops as the month progressed, mostly with the 82nd Airborne Division camped around Leicester. On the 11th there was Operation ‘Payload’, involving the 456th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion; on the 13th it was the turn of the 507th Parachute Infantry Regiment to be dropped for Operation ‘Pitch’. Operation ‘Faithful’ on April 18th again involved elements of the 82nd Airborne Division, and yet another practice mission involving the 82nd coded ‘Playball’ was followed by ‘Hopeful’ on the 24th. However, practice could not continue for ever, and like every other unit about to take part in the invasion it was time for the 440th to take up position closer to the south coast. On April 26th officers and men of the 440th TCG and the 50th Troop Carrier Wing departed for Exeter. The 50th’s Wing historical report observed that the determination was now there to ‘Git thar fustest with the mostest’. Assembling with the 50th on southern airfields were its sister units, the 52nd and 53rd Troop Carrier Wings. Between them they now administered fifteen Troop Carrier Groups, each one comprised of four Troop Carrier Squadrons. In turn each of the four squadrons had a paper strength of sixteen C-47’s, meaning that there were roughly 960 transport aircraft available for the invasion.
Although there were now no flying units in residence, Bottesford was still in American hands as a storage area for gliders. A detachment from Snailwell’s 33rd Mobile Repair and Reclamation Squadron had arrived at the aerodrome in early June to inspect and repair gliders, but by the time that D-Day approached Bottesford had taken on a new function. Ron Shaw wrote:
When the invasion was approaching the hangars were filled with dozens of hospital beds and I was told that I’d be given some men, we’d be armed, and we were just going to be available to go over to the battlefront to make ourselves useful, guard prisoners, help with equipment, anything at all. But no casualties ever came to Bottesford and the beds disappeared within a very few weeks. They’d expected terrific amounts of wounded, but fortunately they just didn’t happen.
The D-Day experiences of the two former Bottesford units, the 436th and 440th Troop Carrier Groups bear out Ron Shaw’s comments. The 436th dropped 1,084 paratroopers and twelve artillery guns over Normandy on the morning of June 6th without loss to itself. The 440th at Exeter lost three C-47’s on D-Day and three more on a re-supply mission the following day. Although total invasion casualties were heavy, they were by no means as heavy as initially feared.