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Bonkers Blog February 2019

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10 February (Part 2) - Made in Erith

Generally speaking I only use Twitter to announce the more significant Bonkers’ posts and for countering the lies told by @bexleynews. Following that rule I very nearly didn’t Tweet about yesterday’s blog which had nothing to do with Bexley and it was on line for several hours before I changed my mind.

I was wrong about there being little interest in a brief life history but it bumped the number of web hits considerably and provoked more emails than blogs usually do.

I was also wrong about it having nothing to do with Bexley because I have been told that the air blowers shown in the engine test facility photo (white things on left) were made in Erith. I walked around those motors several times as a teenager and remember my father speaking of both the GEC and Parsons engineering companies and visiting their HQs. I did not realise that they were really one and the same company because Parsons took over GEC, or at least the bit of it that made the compressors.

Here’s another view of ‘Made in Erith’.
Blower Blower
As my knowledgeable reader, an apprentice with GEC Erith when the various bits and pieces were made, correctly says, the steam turbine was used to spin eight synchronous electric motors up to speed and the combined half million horse power was the force behind the Mach 3 wind tunnel.

if you were wondering a month ago why I lived in a town that still had gas lighting well into the 1960’s you have your answer. There was no spare electricity, in fact when those motors were switched on our TV pictures would shrink as the voltage went down.

My father always refused to speak of what he did while with Special Operations Executive and the Halifax to Cairo story was only got out of him during his final months. He wouldn’t speak of the Liberator to Casablanca trip at all and merely listened while his sister - the old lady in East Ham - related what he had told her, and presumably shouldn’t have done, many years before. The only bit of the story that came directly from my father was the bit about getting airborne within 30 minutes.

Since it appears to be of some interest here are the notes I made back in 1987 suitably sanitized and slightly modified for publication.


In 1987 Dad was dying and I took him out by car at weekends if he was well enough. One day we called in at the aviation museum at Tangmere which was little more than a couple of corrugated iron sheds filled with a variety of aircraft artefacts and memorabilia. One of them was a badly broken Rolls Royce Merlin engine that had been dug from the ground after a Spitfire crash.

Dad had worked on Merlin engines and I recall him, bragging almost, that it was the first engine to develop more horsepower than it weighed in pounds. On the side of the damaged Merlin engine was a panel inscribed with a notice to the effect that only Rolls Royce authorized personnel were to remove it. Dad muttered something about there being times when such things had to be ignored.

In early November 1942, towards the end of Montgomery’s campaign in North Africa, he said that there was an urgent need for small arms and ammunition to be ferried to Egypt. Six Halifaxes were suitably loaded and flew from Tempsford, Bedfordshire in two groups of three. Each group had the normal flight crew and because the flight was to be such an unusual one each group carried an engineering officer and a munitions expert. Dad was the engineer for his group of three ’planes.

They flew directly over France to Malta where they stopped for at least one night. Dad said the crew thought it easiest to sleep on board the Halifaxes but the local authorities forbade it because of the danger posed by Luftwaffe attacks.

Next day they flew on to Cairo where their load was safely delivered. For the return journey they loaded with forces’ mail and took off bound for Gibraltar. At some point in the journey the flight crew called Dad forward to look at the instrumentation of one engine and he instructed them to shut it down. They continued on their journey but another engine failed and all the mail had to be thrown into the sea while they struggled to keep aloft long enough to reach the north African coast.

Finding themselves stuck in a desert with two failed and two failing engines, with little food and no defences was something of a predicament.

A day or two later an army appeared on the horizon and very fortunately it was American and not German. They were in awe of such a large aeroplane stuck in the desert but perhaps unsurprising given that they were army and not U.S.A.F. They had plenty of food and fuel and oil.

Given hope of survival Dad began to dismantle the Merlin engines and discovered they had sucked in a great deal of sand. After a lengthy strip down and clean the Polish crew took off and headed off around the Bay of Biscay and home.

The pilot was ecstatic about getting airborne again and as Land’s End came into view he dived at it and continued the flight back to Bedfordshire at tree top height. When they got near to their base he circled the nearby village of Potton where Mum was staying and she added to the story by saying that she was in the garden hanging out the washing when the Halifax circled around at low level and she knew it had to be Dad’s after an absence of more than three weeks.

Dad went on to say that he didn’t think any of the other five Halifaxes returned but two crews managed to get home by overland routes.

He got home just before Christmas which was a good one because the Americans had stocked the Halifax with food and fruit which wasn’t easily available back in wartime Britain.


There are records on line of Halifaxes being lost over the Mediterranean at the appropriate time but nothing about exactly how many and whether some got home.

 

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