1657 HCU

They were posted to to 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit (HCU) at RAF Stradishall in September ’44 to convert to flying Stirlings.

8 September – 10 November 1944: 1657 Heavy Conversion Unit, RAF Stradishall (31 Base), No. 3 Group,  “A” Flight

The four-engined Short Stirling was a much larger aircraft than the Wellington, and more complex. The first two weeks at HCU were at ground school to learn about the Stirling’s fuel, pneumatic, electrical and hydraulic systems. Also practiced during those first weeks were emergency drills and the associated equipment.

Above: Ground crew on the wing of a Stirling, thought to be Stradishall, October 1944.
Below: The Wood crew (as they were before Doug joined) on the wing of a Stirling.
– both photos from the Gerry Newey collection, thanks to Phil & Bruce Newey.

Heavy Conversion Unit flying training involved the following: Starting Up, Running Up, Stopping, Familiarisation, Day and Night Landings, Overshoots, Three-Engine Flying, Feathering, Three-Engine Landings (including demonstrations and actual performance by pupil), Three-Engine Overshoots, Action in Event of Fire, Cross-Wind Landings, George Demonstration (George was the autopilot) and Fighter Affiliation.

The first 15 hours of flying training were devoted to day circuits for pilot conversion; half dual and half solo, without crew. During this time, of the other crew members, only the W/Op could gain any practice at his trade.

The boys were given 6 days leave from 1 October to 6 October.

“My crew at Stradishall flying Stirlings, Oct 1944.
L-R: Ralph Sparrow, Rear Gunner; John Wood, Pilot; Jim Hooper, Bomb / Aimer; Jack Cash, Mid/Upper Gunner; Jack Pauling, Navigator; Gerry Newey, Wireless Op”

– Gerry Newey collection, thanks to Phil & Bruce Newey.
Johnny Wood’s copy of the same photo. Taken outside 3 Barrack Block.
– John Wood collection, thanks to Debbie Van Beurden.
Johnny’s caption on the back of his copy.
– John Wood collection, thanks to Debbie Van Beurden.

The Flight Engineer, Douglas Williamson had not yet joined the crew when this photo was taken. The RNZAF did not train Flight Engineers; because the role was specific to the UK-based four-engined heavy bomber aircraft types, F/Es were almost all provided by the RAF, from specialist training schools in the UK.

Doug, a 19 year-old Scot who had trained at No 4 School of Technical Training (4SofTT), RAF St Athan, arrived at 1657 HCU at Stradishall and was assigned to the crew in October or early November, some time after they started training on Stirlings, and presumably before they started the “complete crew” exercises.

Doug Williamson, 1944
– Doug Williamson collection.

He remembers it in his book, The Nazi & The Luftgangster, by D. B. Williamson and Lutz Dille, Elgin Press, 2012 (ISBN 978-0-473-22086-0):

”It was not long before l was introduced to the crew to which I had been assigned.

The pilot, Timber Wood, Navigator Jack Pauling, and the Wireless Op. Gerry Newey, all New Zealanders.
The two gunners were Canadians. Cash, the upper gunner, was the oldest and most sedate member of the crew.  Sparrow (Tweet) was the rear gunner and used to live it up when off duty.”

“Snatch Hooper, the bomb aimer, an Englishman, on the other hand, had a more considered approach. He would cycle for miles to attend little country-dances, where he would charm the local rural girls, who would be flattered by the attentions of a real live Brylcreem boy.”

– The Nazi & The Luftgangster, by D. B. Williamson and Lutz Dille.

The full seven-man crew was:

Flight Sergeant John Henry Thomas (Johnny) Wood, RNZAF, NZ426235, Pilot;

Flight Sergeant John Austin White (Jack) Pauling, RNZAF, NZ422976, Navigator;

Flight Sergeant Noel Ridley (Jim) Hooper, RAF, 1336483, 196925, Bomb Aimer;

Flight Sergeant Gerald (Gerry) Newey, RNZAF, NZ425285, Wireless Operator / Air Gunner.

Sergeant Douglas Bannerman (Doug or Jock) Williamson, RAF, 43310, Flight Engineer;

Flight Sergeant Albert John Tipping (Jack) Cash, RCAF, R147817, Mid/Upper Gunner;

Sergeant Ralph Charles Sparrow, RCAF, R263518, Rear Gunner.

Then training exercises began with the complete crew:

Day circuits and landings
Day cross-country.
Night circuits and landings
Night cross-country. Night cross-country with Night bombings

During these they also practiced Bombing, Wireless, “Gee” (an early form of radar navigation, in its fully-developed form known as “G-H”) and map reading,  Air to Air Firing, General flying, three-engine flying, SBA (Standard Beam Approach, a blind beam landing approach system), and Fighter Affiliation (“FA”, simulated ‘attack’ by a fighter, with the pilot executing the standard evasive corkscrew manoeuvre, and the gunners endeavouring to ‘shoot’ the fighter down with their cine-camera-gun (CCG)).

Night bombing also included “IR”, simulated bombing of a target which had an infrared beam aimed upwards and along the predetermined line of the bombing run. The IR beam would be recorded as a trace on the bombing photograph and give a permanent record of bombing accuracy.

Navigation was obviously critical to survival, let alone success.

The W/Op was heavily involved in this, obtaining QDMs, loop bearings and radio fixes. There were Direction Finding (DF) stations spread over the whole of the British Isles from where the W/Op could request a QDM by Morse code. To provide a radio fix, there were groups of three DF stations at a number of points over the British Isles. The W/Op called the control station on W/T requesting a fix, and the three DF stations each took a bearing on the aircraft’s transmission. The outstations relayed their numbers to the control station by land line where the bearings were triangulated and the position was transmitted to the aircraft.

The radio was also capable of picking up the BBC, and crewmate Doug Williamson recalls at least one occasion when Gerry took great pleasure in bringing up “The Trolley Song“, the latest annoyingly repetitive popular tune and playing it over the crew intercom … 

[The Trolley Song by the Pied Pipers hit number two on Billboard  the week of December 16, 1944]

Stirling undergoing maintenance, thought to be Stradishall, October 1944.
– Gerry Newey collection, thanks to Phil & Bruce Newey.

Doug remembered one of their night cross country flights in his book:

”We were on a training flight for the skipper and the navigator; the skipper becoming familiar with a large four-engined kite, and the navigator and bomb aimer on some kind of night map-reading exercise. We had to fly a fairly long set distance over Britain and spot certain features on the ground.

We had a full fuel load and took off on the main tanks, then switched to the outer tanks during the flight. The Stirling’s normal fuel load was 2254 gallons carried in 14 tanks, 7 in each wing, and the supply to the engines was controlled by a series of coloured levers above the engineer’s head. I kept a fuel log during the flight, and as one tank became low, I would switch to another full one. We had been instructed never to drain tanks, but to leave a residual amount in, as an empty tank was more likely to explode if hit by flak or gunfire.

We were travelling along, the navigator and the bomb aimer discussing where they thought they were by spotting cross roads and other features. Everything was going along nicely, my log was filling up and ETA back at base was approaching. I was beginning to look forward to our evening meal. 

When our ETA was passed, I became anxious about the amount of fuel we had left, and asked when we would be home. In about half an hour I was told. I could not believe it.

They were lost!

OK, we had about an hour’s fuel left, but it was distributed over the seven tanks. The main tanks had sufficient fuel for a safe landing, but the rest was in little bits in the other twelve tanks. Twenty gallons in this one, twenty-six in that one, a wee bit more in another, sufficient fuel but in dribs and drabs. I was running on the second main tank, which was also becoming short, and when the half-hour was up and I was told we would be another half-hour my alarm was dismissed with “Oh, she’ll be right.”

I decided to drain all the outer tanks. I ran the port engines on the second main tank and switched the starboard engines to run on twenty gallons in the outer tank, keeping my eye on the fuel warning light. When it came on, I jumped to the levers and reversed the tanks. When the port warning lights came on, I again switched to the next few gallons in another tank, and was beginning to feel like a railway man in a signal box, getting startled looks from the wireless operator.
Eventually, I had five empty tanks in each wing and precious little in the second main. 

When at last we prepared to land I switched on to the remaining fuel in the main tank, just enough.

The command “wheels down” was given. At last I wiped the sweat from my face and rushed down to the tail wheel and cranked the handle. It would not lock! Ach! I must be cranking the wrong way! Still would not lock – I was right the first time, and heaved a sigh when at last I felt the lock grab. I plugged in my intercom and reported wheel locked.
“It’s all right Doug,” a cheery voice answered, “We’re going round again,” as if we had all the time and fuel in the world. 

How I listened to those engines roar with the extra revs needed to gain height, as they guzzled up the precious fuel as we made another circuit of the drome. AH! But what a glorious feeling of relief when the wheels eventually touched the tarmac.”

– The Nazi & The Luftgangster, by D. B. Williamson and Lutz Dille.
De Havilland Mosquito, seen from a Stirling bomber – probably taken on a cross-country or fighter affiliation training flight.
– Gerry Newey collection, thanks to Phil & Bruce Newey.

In late October, while at Stradishall, Johnny and Gerry received terrible news – two friends had died while also training on Stirlings.

More about the tragic story of two mates here.

The Johnny Wood crew completed the Stirling phase of their Heavy Conversion course on 10th November ’44.

Ralph Sparrow received his promotion to Flight Sergeant on 11 November 1944.

The boys were given another 7 days leave from 11 November.