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Wings Over Wick
Ex Wing Commander T.R.N. Wheatley Smith, Herts
I was posted to Wick in June 1940 as a 21-year-old pilot, with the rank Pilot Officer. The journey to Wick was by steam train and seemed never ending. After leaving Helmsdale the line went inland across the bleak moors and in the lay of forbidding mountains.
The experience was quite shattering for someone who had been brought up in the south of England. I was entering a strange, bleak land and I began to wonder what my destination would be like. l was pleasantly surprised when I eventually arrived. I was met by an airman who drove me to the Station Hotel where I spent a very comfortable night.
I soon was able to explore the town. The buildings were solidly built but rather drab and the shape of the few trees I saw gave warning that the prevailing wind could be very strong indeed. There were two cinemas, a Woolworths and a number of small shops. The only other major hotel was Mackays, which had been taken over as an officer’s mess for a fighter squadron.
No 269 squadron was equipped with American Lockheed Hudson aircraft. There were no navigators at that time and so we flew with two pilots on board. One to fly the aircraft and the other to navigate. We took it in turn. The rest of the crew consisted of a wireless operator and airgunner.
The task of number 269 squadron was to escort allied shipping grouped into convoys to prevent submarine attack. Reconnaissance flights into Norwegian waters and patrols to detect submarines and surface vessels sailing from and returning to enemy occupied ports. The convoys we escorted were in the North Atlantic and North Sea and some consisted of as many as 60 or 70 vessels and it was a wonderful sight to see them together. Most had a naval escort and we had to work closely with the Royal Navy. In spite of our efforts ships continued to be sunk and I saw many items from cargoes washed up on lovely sandy beaches near Cape Wrath. The patrols we flew were either in the form of a creeping line ahead or a cross over pattern.
Flights were up to 6 hours duration and flown about 1500 to 2000 feet above sea level. We operated in all weather conditions. However, when weather was good, coastlines and mountains could be seen with a naked eye up to 12Omiles away. We had no radar at that time and the entire patrol was spent looking at the sea with and without binoculars. The work was tiring and monotonous. The submarine was difficult to see at periscope depth amongst the white breakers. We did however have an automatic pilot known as George which enabled us to fly without having to put our hands on the control column and this enabled us to concentrate on keeping a good look out. Even if the patrol did not spot a submarine it forced them to remain submerged and slowed down their progress. The reconnaissance flights were usually at night to minimise the risk of being shot down by German fighter aircraft. Electric power cables were stretched across some fiords and great care had to be taken to avoid hitting them in the dark. When returning to Wick in the dark we had to make sure that we did not over fly the Naval Base at Scapa Flow, as any aircraft doing so would be shot down irrespective of whether they were friend or foe. We always took carrier pigeons with us in a wicker basket so that if we had the misfortune to ditch in the sea we could send a written message in a small capsule attached to the bird's leg. What we did not realise was that unless the bird could reach land before it got dark it would be lost at sea.
Not all air sorties were against the enemy. We did a lot of practise bombing and firing of guns and had to air-test our aircraft after major service. Another flight which comes to mind was a mercy mission - a train had been marooned in deep snow near Forsinard or Frozenhard as we nicknamed it. The emergency rations had been consumed by the passengers and the situation was serious. We used an old Avro Tutor open cockpit aircraft to drop food to them. The duel control column in the rear cockpit was removed and I sat there with a sack of food on my lap. At the appropriate moment I threw the sack over the side hoping it would not hit the tail-plane. I'm pleased to say it landed close to the train.
Another experience which comes to mind relates to a little kitten which I had befriended. I used to tuck it inside the top of my flying overalls and it accompanied me on several flights. It was quite placid. However on reflection this was a dangerous thing to have done.
I spent some of my spare time fishing off the rocks near the Trinkie. I never caught anything as the current used to drift my line into seaweed which was very dense in that vicinity. It was on one of those forays that I first met Anne Budge, my wife to be-the daughter of Willie Budge - who lived at 18 Bexley Terrace and skippered a seine-net fishing boat. She worked at DR Simpsons, the ironmongers and I'm sure the shop profits increased considerably as I visited the shop regularly there after. The Budge family made me very welcome and on several occasions I went on fishing trips on the "Loyalty". This was in spite of the fact that I could only swim about 5 yards. I recall that one of the crew was named John MacKenzie, a very nice man. It was quite an experience for me and I then realised what terrible conditions a fisherman sometimes had to work under and how courageous they are. The cod and haddock they caught was a very welcome addition to the wartime food rations. Naturally I made regular visits to the Budge household and used to walk down Mowat Lane and the Black Steps near the Pavillion Cinema. I passed a small confectionery shop kept by a Mrs Bain. I called in there regularly. She was aware that careless talk could cost lives and always asked me, "Did you do good today?". All she wanted to hear was a single word "Yes". She then let me purchase a box of chocolates, which were rationed at that time, without asking for any coupon. The chocolates were then given to my fiancée.
I have not made any mention of the work done by the airmen, without their hard work in all weather conditions servicing and arming the aircraft nothing would have been possible and the aircrew would not have been able to live in comfortable conditions and have eaten the sausage, bacon, egg and chips which preceded every operational flight we made and we also ate after we landed.
My tour of duty in Wick was only of nine months duration but my time there was very important for me. I gained a lot of experience in operational time in all weather conditions and of course l met my wife there. Although 18 Bexley Terrace is no more we still have relatives in the town and in spite of the passage of time visit them regularly.