Leading Aircraftman George Graham. 103/576 Sqns
George Graham was born on 1st October 1921, the son of Matthew and Minnie Graham (nee Bowron) in a small cottage that adjoined the ‘Spotted Dog’ public house in the village of High Conniscliffe, County Durham. When George was 2, his father went to work at the railway station at Catterick Bridge as a porter, and the family moved into a small cottage in Brompton-on-Swale, in what was known as ‘the alley’ near the River Swale. His sister Norah was born in this house in 1926, and George remembered been sent to fetch Mrs Hardcastle, the ‘village midwife’, to preside at the delivery. Initially educated at the village primary school, before ‘moving up’ to the National School in Lombards Wynd, Richmond, at the age of 12. He left school at the age of 14, in 1935, and his first job was as a gardener at ‘Bean’s Nursery’ at Catterick Bridge, following which he had a spell as an poultry farmer’s assistant. George quickly concluded that this wasn’t going to be his long term future and went after a job as an apprentice joiner in the village, but was piped at the post by another village boy, Burt Lumley. As we shall see, though George was disappointed at the time, in hindsight, this turned out for the best. His mother then told him that Phillip Thompson, who ran an electrical business from his shop in Newbiggin, Richmond, was looking for someone to train as an electrician to help him, and George was successful on that occasion. In the 1930’s, electricity distribution was still in its infancy and many properties were getting ‘wired up’ for the first time. Thus George learned his trade in wiring houses, repairing appliances, charging and supplying accumulators (batteries) for the valve radios which were coming into vogue at that time. It was not unusual for the early radio sets to have aerials that comprised a wire ‘strung between trees’ up to 100 feet long!
However, in the late 1930’s, the storm cloud of a European was loomed over the horizon , and with an interest in aviation, George volunteered to join the Royal Air Force. He was not sent for straight away, but at the height of the ‘Battle of Britain’ found himself on the 3rd September, 1940, doing ‘square bashing’ at West Kirkby on the Wirral peninsular, before being posted to RAF Henlow to receive classroom training to be an electrician. On completion, he was posted to RAF Finningley in Yorkshire, starting in the ‘battery room’ before moving on to the ‘flights’, to cut his teeth on Ansons, Hampdens and Wellingtons. There then followed a course at Hereford before a return to Finningley. George struck up more than a passing relationship with a farmer’s daughter called Joan, her family living near Doncaster, and though Joan was keen to take it further, George wasn’t, and they went their separate ways.
In February 1942, George was posted overseas, and sailed in a convoy of about 30 ships from Liverpool. His vessel was a P & O boat called the ‘Moultown’, and ploughing across the stormy Bay of Biscay in winter, he was constantly seasick and eat nothing for 5 days. He slept in a hammock, below water level. The convoy made landfall at Freetown before continuing south to Durban, South Africa, where he boarded the liner ‘Niew Amsterdam’ for the voyage north through the Indian Ocean to Egypt. It was at this time that the news came through that the garrison at Singapore had capitulated to the Japanese and George was grateful that he hadn’t been posted there. Arriving in Cairo, George was sent to operate the electrical equipment needed to run a chromium plating plant, preparing engine parts for the desert Air Force,. When not on duty, he had the chance to try his luck riding a camel and admiring the Pyramids. However, George reckoned the ‘natives’ to be a ‘rum lot’ and on one occasion, a young lad drowned while swimming in the Nile, and his pitiful body was left for several hours with his legs sticking out from under a blanket before ‘being claimed’ later that day.
Unfortunately the Egyptian climate was not conducive to George’s health, and he found himself hospitalised with a combination of mumps, dysentery and arthritis. This was about the time of the ‘El Alamein’ offensive in November 1942, and the subsequent defeat of Rommel’s vaunted ‘Afrika Korps’. George found himself in a hospital ward with a soldier wounded in that campaign who was adept at persuading his fellow patients to empty his ‘po bottle’ for him. George remembered that he would often fill it to the brim! George was shipped north to recuperate among the pleasant orange groves of Palestine, following which the decision was made to ship him back to ‘blighty’ . After a further voyage on the ‘Niew Amsterdam’, from Port Tewfik to Durban, he switched ships to the ‘Largs Bay’ for the trip to Cape Town where he spent some time getting to know the comparative pleasures that ‘the Cape’ had to offer. George was made very welcome and became friendly with some of the local population who welcomed him into their homes, but could not help note the poor treatment afforded to the indigenous native Africans. Seeking means to return home, he volunteered to guard Italian prisoners of war, being transported on the Queen Mary to Britain. One of the two ‘Queens’ plying the peacetime Atlantic route, the ocean liner was deemed fast enough to sail unescorted, reaching Greenock in Scotland two weeks later. Guarding Italians was a straightforward exercise as they were not reckoned to be a threat. Though issued with bayonets for their rifles, the guards were not issued with ammunition!
There then followed a welcome fortnights leave spent at home before reporting to Stradishall, and Waterbeach, before a posting to RAF Woolfox Lodge, to work on Stirling bombers. The Stirling was the first of the RAF’s four engine heavy bombers, and with its unusually large preponderance of electrical systems proved to be an ‘electrician’s nightmare’. One day while disconnecting the batteries on a Stirling, he accidentally dropped a ‘live cable’ which welded itself to the aircraft, in turn causing the undercarriage to collapse! The Stirling had to jacked up and the gear lowered again! On another occasion, George, along with a fellow airman, was taking a ‘short cut’ on their issue bicycles across the ‘active runway’ when a Stirling took off over their heads, prompting both ‘erks’ to fall flat on their faces! That George could act on his own initiative, was displayed on the day that a Stirling was seen to circle the station several times to use up fuel, before making a crash landing. While others concentrated on getting the aircrew off, George took it upon himself to remove the battery connections, reckoning that the spark from a short circuit would potentially cause a disastrous fire should high octane fuel be ignited.
His next posting was to 103 Squadron based at RAF Elsham Wolds in Lincolnshire. Here, George, by now a ‘Leading Aircraftman’’ , found himself on ‘A Flight’, working on what he and many others considered to be the finest bomber of the war, the Avro Lancaster. Living in a cold Nissen hut was not without its privations, but the bonds forged with fellow airmen were to stand the test of time. Part of his duties was to respond at short notice to aircraft that had developed a fault, and the time he had to ‘sort’ the fault on a fully fuelled and ‘bombed up’ Lancaster waiting to go’ was no exception, but to prove more than memorable for all the wrong reasons! Under some pressure, he traced the fault to the bomb-selector switch but inadvertently ‘shorted’ the switch. He would never forget the sudden upwards lurch of the aircraft on its suspension, and the sickening thud made by the unscheduled release of a 4000 pound bomb on to the hard standing below the aircraft! Fortunately the Armourers were still in the area and the bomb was winched back into the bomb bay before ‘anyone important’ found out! In similar circumstances at a later date, he ‘energised’ a faulty circuit which caused a canister of incendiary bombs to fall through partly open bomb doors. On landing they proceeded to burn, and had to be hastily kicked clear of the fuelled aircraft!
Another memory that was to remain with George for the remainder of his life, was the morning that he and his colleagues rushed out from breakfast to witness the appalling sight of a Lancaster obviously in dire straits, its wing banked hard over, it narrowly missed the parachute bay before cartwheeling into the ground. In the resulting mêlée, the mid-upper turret complete with gunner separated from the remainder of the aircraft, and came to rest in a sports field. Though knocked unconscious, the occupant was the only survivor. The other 6 aircrew perished, and it was several hours before the wreck had sufficiently cooled for their charred remains to be recovered. Then there was the night that ten Lancasters were dispatched to bomb Karlsruhe, and the next morning only 2 had returned.
When not on the line at Elsham, George worked on ‘Base Unit’ in the hangers, which involved modifying aircraft freshly delivered to the squadron and repairing dynamos. One day he spent several hours tracing a fault on a brand new Lancaster to discover that it had been cross-wired at the factory! George went on leave at the beginning of February 1944, but could get no further than Darlington by rail, as trains were not running to Catterick Bridge. This was the 4th February , and unbeknown to George, an ammunition train had exploded in the sidings at Catterick killing 12 and injuring 102, one of the injured was Matthew Graham, his own father, who had been taken to the military hospital at Catterick. Ironically Matthew had come through the First World War relatively unscathed as a gunner in the Royal Garrison Artillery, only to be blown up as a civilian in the Second! He was off work for a year and according to his son, was never the same man afterwards.
Part of 103 Squadron was expanded to become 576 Squadron and in October 1944, reformed at RAF Fiskerton, and by now a Corporal, George went with them. Fiskerton was a FIDO station, in that fuel could be pumped through special pipes laid down either side of the runway, and burned to disperse fog, allowing aircraft to make a safe recovery in foggy conditions, from Fiskerton and other neighbouring airfields. The last offensive mission mounted from Fiskerton was that to bomb the Fuhrer’s retreat at Bergtesgarden in April 1945. One of the Lancasters that transferred with 103 Squadron to 576 Squadron was ‘Mike Squared’. This particular aircraft was renowned as a ‘ton-up Lanc’, in that it had survived over a 100 sorties and went on to complete more missions than any other Lancaster in Bomber Command. George remembered that it was not quite as fast as the other Lancasters and the fuselage floor was polished from the countless feet that had gone up and down it!
George was demobbed at RAF Cardington in January 1946, and came home to be presented with the monies he had studiously sent home to his mother during the years he had been away. She had saved it all. As for his pal, Burt Lumley, he had been conscripted into the infantry and had gone ashore on D-Day, but fortunately survived the war. So perhaps George had been lucky in learning a ‘technical trade’ but was always very mindful that the aircrew of Bomber Command, all of whom were volunteers, had paid a very high price. Over half of their number, 55,000 and then some, did not survive the conflict. 1300 from Elsham Wolds alone did not come back. To them and their likes in the other fighting services, George rightly reckoned was owed a debt that could never be paid. Through much of his RAF career, George was known as ‘Joe’ and one Saturday in the mid ‘70’s, one of his RAF pals, Ken Gaskin from Frodsham, Cheshire, came to the village asking if ‘Joe Graham’ still lived there! They rekindled their friendship from then on.
Phillip Thompson wanted George to come back and work with him, but instead he got a job as an electrician working under Arklie Pickersgill, known to all as ‘Pick’, with the Royal Engineers at Catterick Camp. Based at the Power Station off Leyburn Road, George held ‘Pick’ in very high regard, and used to say that ‘Pick’ could tell if a conductor was live by reaching out and touching it! Working with overhead lines or jointing underground cables in all conditions, was not without incident. Handling ladles of molten lead was routine and on one occasion George had to go to seek treatment for some molten metal that stuck to his eye. George was with the ‘ministry’ for the next 40 years, seeing several incarnations of nomenclature, from Army Works Organization, then Ministry of Public Buildings and Works (known to some wags as the ‘Ministry of public blunders and wonders’!) and finally the Property Services Agency. He greatly treasured his time as an ‘Electrical and Mechanical Foreman’ on the Alma / Cambrai site where he spent many a happy hour nurturing the steam boilers that kept the site heated.
George was an electrician through and through, and did many jobs in Brompton and its surroundings over the years. Rarely was there a time when someone’s washing machine or spin dryer wasn’t sat in the garage at 3 Bridge Road in the process of being repaired. He turned few customers away, though once someone knocked on the door carrying a plastic bag full of food mixer parts and asked him if he could put it back together again! Then there was the time he did some work for a gentleman in Station Road who then refused to pay him for the work he had done, threatening to report George to the taxman if he wouldn’t go away. George politely informed the man that he took great pains to declare his earnings to the taxman and the customer paid up. George also had a passion for woodwork, and it must be said that whatever he made was built to last!
George formally retired in October 1986 and was awarded the Imperial Service Medal in recognition of his contribution over 4 decades of service but he never forgot his time in uniform and the indelible impression this left on him. His son David well remembers a conversation that George had with a serving airman at an air display at RAF Valley in the summer of 1975. The airmen was expounding the challenges that he and his colleagues encountered in keeping elderly Hawker Hunter aircraft airworthy, to which George succinctly replied “I never had that problem in my day – more often than not, they only lasted a matter of weeks”!
Item courtesy of David Graham May 2013