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Wings Over Wick
L F Hart, Orpington, Kent
A few weeks after my 21st birthday, I was posted on 25th February 1944 from Northern Ireland to Wick to start a tour of operations with 519 Long Range Meteorological Reconnaissance Squadron of Coastal Command, at Skitten - a satellite airfield of Wick. We flew Lockheed Vega Ventura and Lockheed Hudson twin engined aircraft, and from December 1944 the Boeing B17 Flying Fortress with four engines which gave us greater range.
My initial crew of four comprised myself as pilot, a navigator from Sydney, one WOP/AG from Nova Scotia, and the other from Ontario. Sadly, less than three weeks after our arrival on the squadron the navigator and one of the WOP/AGs failed to return from a sortie on 12th March 1944, when the Commanding Officer and two other officers were lost with them.
Our job was gathering meteorological information. 519 squadron flew two met flights, one code named Recipe, from Wick, more or less due north over Arctic waters, at 1200 to 1500 feet at a sea position some 500 miles away, taking readings from special instruments of barometric pressure, temperatures, humidity, cloud formations, sea state, etc, every 50 nautical miles, and descending to sea level every 150 nautical miles for further readings. The information was recorded on special forms and then converted into a five figure code with a Syko machine. The Recipe sortie averaged some 7 to 8 hours flying time in the Ventura and Hudson, and from 10 to 14 hours in the Fortress.
519 squadron also flew the Rhombus sortie which tracked from Wick across the North Sea to a sea position off the Skaggerack, where a similar climb was made, followed by a gradual descent to an airfield called Docking (later at Langham) in Norfolk, where after debriefing, the crew had a meal, got some sleep and performed the identical trip in reverse back to Wick the next day. For both the Recipe and Rhombus, two sorties were flown each 24 hours, one day and one night.
The sorties could be uneventful and routine but uncomfortable in bad weather and sometimes extremely cold, especially when the heaters broke down. For this reason we wore silk and wool long sleeved vests and long johns, a thick woollen sweater and socks, battledress and sheepskin lined leather lrvin jackets and trousers. But with all that you could get chilled to the bone, happily not on every trip.
All this became necessary because at the outbreak of war the Met Service was deprived of all the reports on weather transmitted to them by ships plying across the Atlantic and around the coasts of Britain, and the special weather ships that had been anchored in the oceans. lf they had continued to transmit, enemy submarines would have been able to locate and destroy them.
The dangers facing us were insidious and arose from the weather. Icing in the carburettors and building up on the wings were a hazard. Flying low over the wave tops at night to obtain sea level readings when rough weather made it extremely bumpy and visibility was nil, was also difficult. And to arrive home after a long and tiring trip to discover fog or a very low cloud base over the airfield made landing a prolonged and difficult task. Sometimes in such conditions we were diverted to other airfields such as Stornoway or Tain, but there were occasions when fuel was too low to do so and risks had to be taken to get down on the ground. The memorial at Halsary is close to the site where one of our Fortresses flew into a hill while trying desperately to land, when returning from a sortie in a snowstorm.
With Mrs Hart, I spent five days in Wick when attending the Halsary Memorial Dedication Service at the end of August this year. Until then I had not been back and had always remembered your town with affection. I always remembered High Street and Market Place, the little square with the Post Office at the end. So nice to see that it hasn't changed externally, for l used to ride my RAF bicycle along the Thurso Road from Skitten, calling at crofts to buy eggs which I carried back in my pillow case. Each was then wrapped in newspaper and placed in compartments in a cardboard box, a dozen for my mother and same to my girlfriend (now my wife), taken to that Post Office and sent to London. Rarely were there any breakages and they arrived in two or three days. When they returned the boxes I would obtain and despatch another consignment. With a strict ration of only one or two eggs a week in London you might imagine how much they were appreciated.
Before Christmas a lady at a croft sold me a turkey, which I plucked in my tiny barrack room (to the disgust of my room mate) then sent it off by rail, unwrapped and with a label tied to its legs. It arrived in good condition but was too large to go in their oven, but a kindly baker nearby cooked it for them in his oven.
There were dances at the Breadalbane where, arriving covered in snow we would be brushed down by someone with a yard broom before entering a warm hall with a red-hot iron stove at each end and a band performing heroically. That I hadn't a clue how to dance a reel didn't prevent me being whirled around until quite dizzy, and I loved it.