207 SQUADRON ROYAL AIR FORCE HISTORY
WORLD WAR I

PERSONAL ACCOUNTS

HAROLD PETERSON

For the late Harold Peterson - 'HP' or 'Sauce' to his friends - the war offered not only excitement but an escape from the drudgery of his job as a baker's assistant, working up to 12 hours a day for six days a week after leaving school at the age of 14. By 1916, still only aged 16, he forged his birth certificate to make himself appear a year older and volunteered to join the RNAS as a mechanic.

By 1917 he was a Leading Mechanic and acting Gunlayer with 7(N) Sqn at Coudekerque: 'My main job was ground maintenance, of course, but I managed to wangle a few actual raids as a gunlayer thanks to my Petty Officer, who knew how keen I was to fly. Our CO was John Babington, an Australian, who later became an Air Marshal in the RAF. We rankers thought him fairly strict on discipline generally, but very efficient and a fair man.

The first raid I took part in was to bomb plenty of searchlights and anti-aircraft gunfire around the target as we arrived. I was in the back fuselage open cockpit with three Lewis guns to attend to - one poked through a hole in the fuselage floor - so had plenty to do. I also had some 20 lb bombs with me which I'd been told to throw down when the main bomb load was dropped, which I did - and thankful to get rid of them, I might add!

I'd been warned before take-off to be very careful how I used the two top Lewis machine guns - apparently a previous gunlayer had got too excited on one raid and nearly shot the aircraft's tail off. Over the target I only used the floor gun, firing at whatever came into view below as we swept over the hangars and sheds at something like 200-300ft height. This was our second run; we'd already dropped our bombs from much higher on the first run, of course.

'In all, I flew on 12 bombing trips with different crews and was lucky to get back alive on one or two of these. One raid against Bruges docks was made despite very bad weather, with heavy rain and squally winds which soaked me to the skin in my rear cockpit and bumped the big plane all over the place at times, making me feel distinctly queasy in my stomach. Over the docks a searchlight found and held us for what seemed ages and the machine was hit in several places by gunfire, ripping fabric off the lower wings, which flapped alarmingly on our return flight. I was scared the wing was going to fall off, but we made the airfield without any trouble and landed safely. Afterwards the lower wings had to be changed for new ones - they found both main spars broken.

I only once occupied the nose gunlayers's cockpit, on my last raid. Stuck way out in front, I had a marvellous view ahead and made good use of the paired Lewis guns when we strafed the target at Ghistelles after our first bombing run. Firing ahead at a downward angle meant that I could watch my tracers as they tracked across the aerodrome, some ricocheting upwards again in brilliant long streaks, just like a Guy Fawkes fireworks display. At our strafing height - probably only 200 ft or so - I could actually see and hear the German ground gunners firing at us from various spots around the aerodrome, and when we got back to Coudekerque I discovered six neat bullet holes in the plywood sides of my cockpit and a seventh through the right sleeve of my outer flying suit ... I'd been very lucky that time."

source: Chaz Bowyer: Handley Page Bombers of the First World War (based on Chaz Bowyer correspondence/interview with Harold Peterson in 1972. Still only 18 when demobilized, Mr Peterson died in February 1974.


LESLIE BLACKING

The late Leslie Blacking was 19 years old when he flew O/400s with 207 Sqn from Ligescourt in 1918. 'I remember this big bomber chiefly for the heaviness of its controls and the height of its cockpit above the ground. It had to be flown all the time and it was particularly heavy on lateral control. When you put bank on it didn't respond at once. When it did you had to reverse the joystick wheel immediately to take the bank off, and if you went over 45 degrees you were in trouble. I've actually had to stand up to exert all my strength to get the 'bus' back on an even keel.

The Handleys were used for night bombing attacks on strategic targets, such as railway marshalling yards, and ammunition and fuel dumps, to help stem the German offensive of 1918. I had done only 10 hours' flying on O/400s before joining the squadron and had previously flown the tricycle-undercarriage FE2bs; consequently I found it difficult to judge height before touch-down. The Observer helped my landing problem by leaning over the side and yelling, 'Back, back, more - OK!' As we always switched off the engines and glided in I could hear him quite clearly, and knew when to pull back on the wheel to get the tail down.

Our grass airfield wasn't very big, but it had a wide valley on two sides where the River Authic ran, and this helped us to get our heavily laden planes into the air. The instrument panel was quite simple; compass, airspeed indicator, bubble, altimeter and clock. There was a large compass on the floor beside the pilot, who sat on the right. The counters were outside the cockpit, on the engine nacelles.

We had no armour-plating or parachutes, just fabric and wood around us and thin duck-boarding under our feet. Our greatest fear was fire in the air, if we were hit by any of the green 'flaming onions' or white phosphorus balls which arched up through the darkness from the ground defences... We could stay airborne for about four and a half hours normally - if we would stand the cold, for it was intense, despite our heavy flying gear in that big open cockpit.'

source: Chaz Bowyer: Handley Page Bombers of the First World War.
Leslie Blacking was also the source of the factual material used by author Humphrey Wynn in his factional account of life on a WWI Bomber Squadron Darkness Shall Cover Me


WILLIAM WARDROP

William E. ('Bill' or 'Tiny') Wardrop, over 6ft tall, joined the RNAS in August 1915 and was trained as a gunlayer/mechanic, and eventually was posted to No 7 Sqn RNAS at Coudekerque in 1917, becoming a gunlayer in Herbert Brackley's aircrew initially. During the following 16 months he completed 66 operational sorties and on 1 January, 1919, the London Gazette announced the award of a DFM to him.

He recalled: 'A normal day on the squadron was similar to the routine in World War II. Inspections, night flying tests, etc, were carried out during the early part of the day, but in 1917 we were usually informed only an hour before take-off of any raids to be carried out that night. Called to the mapping office and given our orders, we worked out the routes then went back to the billets, put on flying gear, and off we would go.

I used to put a silk stocking over my head under my helmet, and Vaseline over my face. Some of the lads used whale oil. We wore sheepskin clothing and I always put a pair of silk gloves under the leather one. One night, however, whilst on a raid, our bombs jammed. So as to free them more easily I took off my gloves, suffering severe frostbite as a result. One arm felt as if it had been in a furnace and was one big blister from wrist to elbow. The MO (Medical officer) gave me a real ticking off, and as the arm seemed to be getting worse he lanced it. This seemed to do the trick and after several days it started to heal.

It was a practice of mine to use the coast as a datum line and take a bearing from a known landmark. Whenever possible we flew along the coastline about 10 miles out to sea and in this way dodged many of Jerry's trouble-spots, for the Belgian ports and key towns were heavily defended. If our route took us near Holland we also took the opportunity of crossing into neutral territory, for we preferred the Dutch defences to those of the Germans! Twice we were attacked by night fighters. Little damage was done apart from a few holes in the wings; you could say though that they had the best of the argument. Our biggest danger came from ground fire, which was heavy at times. When in the bombing run I would operate five pushes which were connected to five lights in the pilot's cockpit, two red, one white, two green. By pushing these I could signal the pilot to turn to port or starboard. The white light signified 'On target'.

During the winter of 1917-18 we flew many sorties, some of which were roving commissions on which we could choose our own targets, shooting up trains, searchlights or whatever. One favourite trick was to find a German aerodrome showing lights, enter the landing pattern with our navigation lights on, then on the final approach sweep down and drop bombs on any hangars or buildings to be seen, whilst the gunlayer in the back added his contribution by shooting up all and sundry with his two Lewis guns.

Coudekerque was heavily bombed on 5/6 June, 1918, causing a great deal of damage to buildings, so the following night we repaid the compliment by heading for the German airfield at St Denis Westrem, near Loos. On arrival there we found the lights on and an aircraft making a landing approach. Our first bombs were dropped from 7000ft and immediately all the lights were turned off. Deciding to stay in the vicinity, we came down to a lower level and in the end our vigil was rewarded when Very lights were fired by a circling aircraft, to be answered from the ground by a signal lamp. For some unknown reason the aircraft dropped a flare, which illuminated the airfield, and we were able to drop our Cooper bombs on the hangar. The job completed, we turned for home and all went well until over the sands at Graveline. I remember looking at the altimeter, which registered 200 ft, then we crashed. Buried head and shoulders in the sand and choking for breath, I pulled myself clear and went to the aid of the pilot, who was mixed up in the wreckage. Our gunlayer, a chap by the name of Thomas, was seriously injured, was flown back to England, and I understand he died soon afterwards. The black eye I sustained in the crash was the only injury I suffered during my entire war service.

On the night of 16 June [1918] we were back over Bruges again when we were caught in an intense AA barrage. A propeller and radiator were hit on the starboard engine and we had to throttle back on the other. Then we headed for home in what I can only describe as a powered glide. With the prevailing wind against us we came down lower and lower. Meanwhile the searchlights held us in their beams whilst Archie gave us a real roasting. Luckily all of us escaped injury, although our machine (D5401) eventually crashed in No-Man's Land near Nieuport.

Struggling from the wrecked machine we quickly took cover in a large shell hole, but were soon approached by soldiers we. took to be Germans. In one of those accidents of war, opening fire with a Webley, I shot one of them. They turned out to be Belgians, sent out from their front line to bring us in! Our luck held again for we were taken prisoner instead of being shot. During the time we had spent in their dugout our Handley Page had been ranged by the German guns and had literally been blown to smithereens.

A sequel to this affair came when we arrived back on the squadron. I was sent for by the Armament Officer. He was angry and inquired as to the whereabouts of the five Lewis guns we had on board, reminding me that it was a court-martial offence to lose one's guns. I replied, 'How was I expected to bring back five machine guns from No-Man's Land - stick them up my jumper?' After the war Wardrop pursued a career in the electrical industry, rising to senior executive status, and in the 1939-45 war became a Company commander in the Home Guard with the rank of major, and on retirement in 1961 was awarded an MBE to add to his DFM award.

source: Chaz Bowyer: Handley Page Bombers of the First World War.


CYRIL BOX (Pilot RFC & RAF, 1/19-8/19)

Cyril was the oldest member of 207 Squadron RAF Association and was delighted to find us via the RAF Museum and join us. He provided an excellent reminiscence of his time on the Squadron for our 75th Anniversary Commemorative Supplement. David Dick, (our then President) visited Cyril and was fascinated by his tales of early flying techniques. Raymond Glynne-Owen represented the Association at Cyril's funeral service.

One of Cyril's sons, John, wrote: 'Cyril was born in Leeds and educated at the Grammar School in Ilkley. He was a keen sportsman and an average academic.

Following a short spell with the Ilkley Volunteers, he joined the Royal Flying Corps. After military training he was stationed at No.14 Training Squadron, Tadcaster, where he learned the skills of flying on a Maurice Farman Shorthorn.

On one flight Cyril landed on the school playing fields at Ilkley where the aircraft was left in the custody of the local constabulary whilst Cyril took his instructor home for lunch, before returning to Tadcaster. The log book entry read 'Engine trouble'!

His first solo flight was on February 25th 1918, after 5h4Omin instruction, just a few days after friend of his had been killed whilst on his first solo flight. He was posted to Spitalgate for acrobatic training on AW90 and BE2e aircraft. At Worthy Down he took courses in artillery and map reading, logging flights in RESs and AW190s.

At this time volunteers were being sought for bomber training and Cyril moved to Tern Hill for conversion to Handley Page O/400 bombers and night flying training. He mastered the arts of night navigation and bomb dropping at Stonehenge.

22916 2nd Lt C A Box RAF was ordered to collect a Handley Page O/400 from Lympne for delivery to 115 Sqn in France. The Armistice was imminent. He moved on for a brief spell with 100 Sqn before joining 207 Sqn. There followed several months of patrolling the Rhine and the French/German border area - his time on 207 has already been described in the Commemorative Supplement. By the time he left the RAF in August 1919 he had, remarkably, completed 163 hours of accident free flying, of which 20 were at night.

Cyril stayed with his family in Bristol until 1922 when he joined the jam and marmalade makers Chivers & Sons of Histon, as their sales representative for the Yorkshire area. Although having no mechanical knowledge whatsoever, he was able to transfer his sympathetic touch for aircraft to a Morris Tourer within half an hour!

In 1930 he married and set up home in Leeds where two sons were born. In 1936 he moved to the southern Lake District where Cyril worked until his retirement in 1963. A holiday in Germany in 1939 to see friends with whom he was billeted in 1919 was finely tuned to end just before war was declared. He served as a sergeant in the Home Guard, attached to the Border Regiment.

He was an enthusiastic and able golfer and played at the Silverdale CC, where he had been both President and Captain, for over 50 years, finally giving up at the age of 90. He drove a car with the care and fluidity which he developed whilst flying and was motoring safely up until the time of his death.

Cyril was the epitome of an English gentleman, with a great love of his family and a kindly disposition to his fellow man. He had a great sense of humour, the twinkle in his eye staying with him for 94 years. He is survived by his wife Ivy and his sons Michael and John.'

Cyril's own account was given in 207 Sqn RAF Association's 75th Anniversary Commemorative Supplement: 'In 1919 - the year of the flu epidemic - I joined 207 Squadron in mid-January following service with 115 Sqn in the Independent Air Force and a short period with 100 Sqn. We were part of the Occupation Forces in Germany after the end of World War I. Our HQ was in the Casino at Merheim on the outskirts of Cologne. It was only a short walk to the aerodrome, to which we had to report every morning for routine duties. The weather was bitterly cold and very little flying was done by our Handley-Page O/400s.

One day a message came over from Bickendorf that if we had any pilots who could fly FE2bs, they should report there to ferry some of these 'pusher' machines to St.Omer. I had last flown an FE2b at Stonehenge during training, but we delivered them safely. We returned to Cologne from Calais in the "Cologne Express", a converted hospital train which was very popular with anyone who was going on leave.

On May 10th 1919 we received orders to move to Hangelar Aerodrome a few miles from Bonn, where we found ourselves in huts and the machines housed in canvas hangars. This was a big change from Merheim, where I had been lucky with a very friendly family in a good billet.

The weather was now good for flying and patrols were more frequent, with the occasional longer flights to St. Inglevert. One day I was sent up for a height test and reached a ceiling of 11,40Oft, about the limit for the HP O/400. My last flight was in July 1919 and shortly afterwards I received my demobilisation papers, ending my time in the RFC and the RAF.

I could not have finished on a happier note than my eight months with 207 in Germany, which I have always remembered as one of the most interesting periods of my life. I often recall the five HP O/400s flying in formation from Merheim to Hangelar. It must have been quite a spectacle in those far off days, almost 75 years ago'.

source: 207 Squadron RAF Association Newsletters, via Frank Haslam