207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
Notes for the Squadron Toast at the
207 Squadron Association Reunion, 1985
Professor David Balme CMG DSO DFC MA LL.D D.Litt. was a Flight Commander on 207 Squadron in 1943 and finished the war in Europe as CO of 227 Squadron. His son, Richard Balme, found this among his fathers papers. Im prejudiced he writes but I think its rather good!. It appeared in the 207 Squadron Association's 2008 Newsletter.
I'm grateful for the honour of proposing the Squadron toast, because it gives me the chance to thank the Squadron for the best months of my life. This is not senile nostalgia: I knew it at the time. I loved every minute, and I learned an awful lot. We founded this Association not just to meet and exchange there-was-me stories (though that is good fun) but really to keep us in touch with each other and with the modern squadron, so that we could go on feeling ourselves to be members of it and keep its tradition and comradeship alive.
It was ironical that no sooner had we founded it than the squadron was disbanded; but squadrons are always being disbanded and re-formed, and we can be confident that before long 207 will be given a new role and that its new members will set about making as good a job of that role as Ian Hampton and his merry men did at Northolt.
It was a Northolt party that started this. The squadron decided to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the famous trip to Berlin in 1943, when Ken Letford took a bright young BBC commentator called Wynford Vaughan Thomas, resulting in a sensational broadcast which the AOC 5 Group vainly tried to suppress because the crew's in-flight conversation was not at all according to the book.
It is sad that Ken is not with us now. He died actually a few days before our last reunion, though none of us knew that. And soon afterwards Bill Bray died, Ken's inseparable buddy who had been his navigator/bomb aimer on Blenheims doing hairy daylight raids before they joined us for a tour on Lancs. After that Ken still refused to stop, so they posted him onto Mosquitos to drop markers from 3000 feet, but he told them what they could with that, and insisted on flying something that would convey large bombs at a low altitude.
After the war he was on various heavies, and it was he who delivered supplies by Sunderland to the Amethyst after she was trapped by the Chinese communists in the Yellow River. Ken was some character; twice court-martialled but never actually sacked; somebody should write up his story.
L-R: Charles Stewart (F/E), Ken Letford (Pilot), Wynford
Vaughan-Thomas (BBC Correspondent), Bill Bray (B/A).
Well this party was for him and Bill and Chas Stewart of their crew and of course Wynford, but quite a few others of us somehow heard of it and decided that we ought to be there too, though not in fact invited. So Ian laid on splendid hospitality in the squadron office from 10.00 a.m. till 5.00, during which we founded the 207 Association. By some trickery which I did not understand they kindly elected me President, but as I said last year I was hoping to be replaced quickly by somebody more suitable.
And in this matter we struck gold straightaway, so that I can now formally introduce your first constitutional President, David Dick. I must tell you a little about him, because he never will himself.
He was of course our squadron commander in 1963-4 on Valiants, but that was a remarkable posting because he was initially trained on fighters, beginning with Hawker Harts to which I believe he still looks back with affection, and his main posting was to a Spitfire [sic - 30 Sqn was flying Thunderbolts] Squadron in 1944.
After the war he left the RAF and took an engineering degree at Cambridge.
But then the RAF lured him back and made him first a CFS instructor, then a test pilot; he was in charge of the Empire Test Pilot School, and later Commandant of the whole Establishment at Boscombe Down.
He retired in 1979 with the rank of AVM.
So one thing is quite clear, that 207 had one of the most brilliant pilots in the RAF as their CO. I happen to have a mole at Boscombe Down, who told me the following story.
David Dick in 1975, when Commandant of the A& AEE, Boscombe Down
One day in 1955 David was up testing a new high performance strike aircraft [it was a Javelin fighter], radioing a commentary to be recorded on the ground. The people down below heard his voice going on and on, but suddenly they realised that the calm dull voice, with no change of expression, was describing an unrecoverable spin. This is every pilot's nightmare; spins killed many in early days, and they can still get out of control.
Having never myself spun anything more than a Tiger Moth which is quite bad enough for inducing a sense of disorientation and general despair, I hate to imagine one in a clean modern fighter; as soon as it became unrecoverable. Any reasonable man would get out fast while he still could. Not so David. The calm dull voice went on, describing in every detail what the aeroplane was doing and what counter-measures he was attempting. At last the voice announced that he had now reached the minimum height for ejection and proposed to eject; which he did.
His recorded commentary was so complete, so exact, that the designers knew at once what needed changing; the aircraft (which shall be nameless) was successfully modified and entered front-line service. There are quite a few gongs among us here, of various sorts, but I bet there aren't many AFCs, because they don't hand them out too readily, especially immediate ones. David Dick has one of them. Ordinary aircrew like me - exceptionally unexceptional in my case - can only regard such efforts as right out of our league, like when one watches top class sports.
Those of us who joined in the war just for the duration were painfully conscious of the difference between our standards and the peacetime RAF. Of course it was unavoidable - there was not enough time for training, nor was it possible to be so choosy over recruitment. But this was where squadron tradition comes in. Whereas I can watch Botham and would never presume to dream of playing cricket like that, when it came to operating those Lancasters - whether as aircrew or on ground duties - there was nobody who did not aim at top professional standards.
True, a modern airman who saw us would be shocked rigid by appearances, for we were unquestionably a scruffy, surly lot of awkward sods, always grumbling and arguing. But he would find that 9 out of 10 of those arguments were about something to do with operations. I don't defend our scruffiness, I don't deny that we'd have been more successful had we been stricter, but I think the powers that be were right not to insist on the superficials, for it was an emergency and first things had to come first.
And those first things were what we learned from the squadron, we sort of drank them in from the atmosphere - to trust each other, to respect each other as a specialist, to make sure we didn't let them down, to do as well as others did.
In 1943 we were the lucky ones; Bomber Command was at last getting aircraft and radar aids that were really up to the job. Those earlier years of the war, on Manchesters, seem to me the squadron's heroic age, and I don't mind saying that they were better men than us. It's great to have some of them back with us. They are the ones who handed on the squadron's traditions to us, an extraordinarily strong squadron spirit. It pervaded everybody on the station, and everything was geared to the one aim of getting the squadron accurately to the target and then safely back again.
Do you remember the WAAF orderly who used to go round the quarters after the crews had returned; she would pull back the sheet from each face, and when somebody woke up and said "Hey, what are you doing?" she replied "Just checking that all my family are back".
Balme crew complete their 207 tour: L-R: P/O Les Mitchell (R/G), Flt Lt Jimmy Moore (M/U), F/S Johnny Rumgay (A/B), Sgt Harry Thomas (W/Op), David Balme, Sgt Colin Lawes (Nav), Cpl Potter and another (Ground Crew), Sgt George Bashford (F/E)
I was walking back once from debriefing after we had returned late, having had engine trouble on a long trip, so in fact we landed about two hours after everybody else, so that there had been a tendency to write us off. You know how you feel after a do like that glad to be back on the ground but actually so drained that you don't really feel anything much. I had no thought in mind except how could I lie down and sleep for a week.
It was broad daylight and people on early duties were walking about. I encountered a WAAF who I didn't know but I recognised her as belonging to Station HQ. As she got near she suddenly put up a terrific salute (which aircrew never expected), a beaming smile came over her face and she said "Welcome back". She walked straight on, and I never did learn who she was; but I never forgot that little incident, and if she should be here now I should like her to know that. It wasn't just that she cheered me up when I was right on the floor, but she showed me something of what the squadron meant. There was no reason for her to know who I was, nor that we had been in trouble; but somehow she did know, and it mattered to her.
Some of you will remember a flight engineer called George. I wish he were here now, but we could not find him; I don't think he would mind my telling this story behind his back. George came in from civilian life, having worked for Rolls Royce; he was a bit older than most; what he did not know about Merlins and Lancasters was not worth knowing.
But in a scruffy lot he was outstandingly the scruffiest. He saw no reason to get his hands cold by taking them out of his pockets just to salute some senior officer. His battle dress was foul with grease; round his neck he habitually wore a pair of his wife's knickers, which he said brought him luck, especially against the incompetence of pilots. One day his efforts in the air made the difference between that aeroplane getting home and not getting home, and he was deservedly awarded a DFM.
He was in my Flight, and before the award was promulgated Pete Jennings the CO sent for me and said "This is a very good gong, and we're not going to have it brought into disrepute by being worn by a filthy sight like George. I find in KR's that no ribbon may be put up without the CO's order, so you can tell George he is not getting this until he looks like a real airman".
When I transmitted this to George he said "Real airman, eh? I'll give him real something airman". For the next few days he persecuted the CO; he would lie in ambush for him, then pop out with a tremendous salute which the CO had to return - not just two or three times a day but thirty or forty. So the CO sent for me again and said "Look, I can't stand any more of this; George is giving me tennis elbow. I'll have a word with him myself".
So I sent George along, feeling sure that this would mean three weeks Sheffield at least. But he was only in with Jennings for two minutes, and came out looking decidedly smug. When I asked him what the CO had said, George said "Oh, nothing much". But a transformation then took place. George started to wear his best blue on all occasions, he walked about swinging his arms, he even started binding at other people for not doing their jobs well enough, thus becoming quite a public nuisance, - and the ribbon appeared over his breast pocket.
So in a quiet moment I asked Pete Jennings what he had said to bring about this miracle. "Oh, nothing much" said the CO, just like George; "I just said that he had proved himself a good engineer, and the squadron is proud of him". Well of course that was what did it. I doubt if the ribbon meant much to George, but what meant everything was to be told that 207 was proud of him.
One of our members has come over from Canada for this reunion, and I hope he won't mind my quoting him. He is Bill Baker, who was the victim of a famous collision on the run-up to Berlin. The Lancaster's nose was broken right off, the bomb aimer of course being thrown out; the prop tips were bent, but the engines kept going; they couldn't get rid of the bombs because nothing in that area worked any more; there was a 160-knot wind blowing through the cockpit at 20 degrees below, and at any moment more might fall off the fuselage.
They turned and headed for home, got coned over the Ruhr but managed to get away, shook the cookie off into the sea but had to take the incendiaries with them, and landed back with no flaps. Bill had all his fingers frostbitten and lost the lot. I last saw him 42 years ago in hospital, when I asked him why the hell they didn't bale out. To which Bill replied "The aeroplane could fly, so we flew it". He then closed his eyes, indicating that he did not wish to be troubled with further damn-fool questions from a bloody flight-commander. He was invalided out, after first marrying Jeannie Lynn, who you will remember as the gorgeous WAAF transport driver attached to flying control, and who is also here tonight.
You might wonder what sort of job Bill could get with his fingers gone. Obviously one would not expect a concert pianist. But then I don't think one would expect an engineer either, and yet that is what he became, and a very successful one, retiring only a couple of years ago.
Now by strange coincidence the other half of that pas-de-deux over Berlin was a 9 Squadron Lancaster containing my mid-upper gunner Alec Cordon, who was on secondment to 9 Squadron. In their case the tail came off, so that there was no choice but to bale out. Alec landed in a tree, fell out of it and broke his back, was patched up and repatriated, returned to the RAF to work at flying control, and stayed on until he too reached retiring age. He had been a Halton boy, and became a gunner for the excellent reason that he was a brilliant shot: he represented the RAF at Bisley. He also is here tonight with his wife Sybil, so they can continue the argument with Bill and Jeannie.
I know that stories like these can be matched by most people in this room, and that itself is a remarkable fact. Of course we owe our survival to a good deal of luck, but to a far greater extent we owe it to the efforts of the people on the ground, in every kind of duty. I know we all want to pay special tribute to them, and I if you don't mind I'm going to get something off my chest that has been on it a long time, and probably on yours too.
Our ground duty people, whether maintenance crews, drivers, orderlies, or whatever you care to mention, worked terribly long hours in often appalling conditions - sometimes under enemy attack from intruders - to keep the aircraft serviceable, the supplies running, all the complicated logistics of that massive bomber campaign over five years; but at the end they got no recognition.
There was no campaign medal, nothing to distinguish them from people who spent the war in snug billets in Torquay or the Isle of Man, nothing for next of kin to treasure in their memory. That is unbelievable ingratitude; but even more scandalous, quite unforgivable, has been the attitude towards our mates who were killed, whether in the air or on the ground. Last year, when we laid up our colours in Leicester Cathedral, I'm sure that every person there was thinking of them. But did you also think how many cities and counties there are where such a ceremony would not be allowed?
I don't mind people arguing against the merits of bombing campaigns - that's their privilege in this country, unlike some - though I myself have a pretty clear answer for them. But this is not an occasion to be spoilt by that controversy. No, the point is that our mates never heard of such arguments in those days, or if they did their answer was like mine. They had no reason to doubt that their country was fighting for its life in a just cause and a just manner; they offered their own lives for it, and the offer was accepted. Whoever dishonours them now, dishonours himself.
For most of its history 207 has been a main force squadron, and that calls for particular qualities. Soon after joining, I went as second dickie with Gilbert Haworth to Essen - when we got there, it was as bright as day and all sorts of mayhem was going on of which he took no notice; we seemed to crawl across the sky like a moth on a windowpane. When we got back he said "Well, how did you like Essen?. I said I felt a bit conspicuous. "No, no" he said if you just keep steadily on and don't step out of line, you won't be noticed". Well, that was a nice cheerful way of looking at it, anyway, and it rather summed up the 207 approach.
When the European war ended, 5 Group formed Tiger Force to do long-distance attacks on Japan from Okinawa. 207 was of course in it, but it happened that I was posted to another squadron as CO. The AOC told the squadron commanders - there were nine of us - that we could bring in whatever crews we wanted, so I thought pretty carefully about what kind of people were needed, and my thoughts went straight back to 207 (as one or two gentlemen sitting here well know).
It wasn't a case for split-arse feats, which might endanger a tricky operation, but for people who could be relied on to do the right thing and keep going - what I believe the Army call steadiness under fire, and the Navy call press-on-types: I don't know an Air Force word for it but I call it guts. A squadron spirit is hard to define, but I think it is something that every generation recognises.
We were visited in 1943 by some 207 types from the First World War; they spoke a strange language, and obviously understood as little of our methods as we did of theirs. Thinking to make a joke, I said "I hear you people used to fly over enemy aircraft and drop hand grenades into the cockpit." "Oh yes" said one of them "I've done it myself; one feller caught it and threw it back; missed me though - can't have been much of a cricketer".
Between them and us there was a 25-year gap. But between us and today there are 40 years, and we must really seem like pterodactyls. When Ben Lyon starts talking about vectoring and goodness knows what not, he loses me. But we all share something that we understand, a very precious tradition which was handed down to us and which I hope we managed to hand on to the next lot. We may be mystified about what they do now, but I think we know very well the spirit that unites them and us.