Friday, 11 March 2016

Salvaging an A.W.38 Whitley

It’s 1941. My father is 19, RAF ground crew and stationed in Scotland. One day a pilot on a training flight gets into trouble over the Dornoch Firth and manages, just, to land his Whitley on the highest part of a sandbank.  The tide comes in but doesn’t quite reach the plane. The race is on to salvage it.

The authorities set about finding billets for the men, including my father, who are charged with carrying out the operation.  None of the locals will agree to take them, so when they try again, they are accompanied by a police officer and my father finds himself assigned to Summerton Farm, near Tain, then in the ownership of Jock and Annie Moore. He is accompanied by two other airmen, one from Newcastle, the other from Ayrshire. The polite demeanour of the airmen soon dispels suspicion and a rapport is established – although when, at one point, the young Scot describes himself as a highlander, Annie Moore draws my father, a Bristolian, to one side and hisses ‘He’s nae a Hielander!’

It is my father’s job to get the two engines out of the Whitley, and this is done using pulleys.  The whole of the plane is then dismantled, and a raft is built out of about sixty strong, iron-bound barrels to transport the pieces of plane over the water to dry land.  It's arduous work, as the sand is deep and unstable, and it’s tiring just reaching the plane. (My father is yet to become an expert at playing football in the Sahara.)  Rowing the raft is no easier, not least because the oars they have been given are of unequal length – one about six foot, the other closer to ten.  It’s really hard to row the raft and negotiate the currents and get it going in the right direction.

The heaviest part of the plane is the fuselage, and to help shift this, about fifty Highlanders who are stationed nearby are drafted in to help.  In the space of three weeks they manage to get all of the plane back onto the shore without getting a single piece wet.

Footnote 1: RAF ground crew were instructed to stop wearing their wellington boots in their habitual style, with the tops turned down, as the local lads were doing the same and their mothers had complained to the authorities that they were breaking their boots and causing unnecessary expense. This instruction was not heeded.

Footnote 2: My father kept in touch with the Moores for many years, until they died. He went back to see them with my mother after they married in the early 50s, and my sister and her husband also tried to visit in 1981, but didn't manage to rouse a then very elderly Jock, who had fallen asleep in his armchair and didn’t hear them knocking on the door. 

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