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Wings Over Wick
Gilbert White, Hartlepool, Cleveland
Within half an hour we were airborne flying to Wick. I was aircraftsman first class fitter (AC1) with 22 squadron Coastal Command, stationed at North Coates near Grimsby, in England, The squadron consisted of half Swordfish (12) and half Bristol Beauforts the most modern aircraft of the time, capable of carrying a torpedo. After a long journey mostly over the sea, we landed at Wick aerodrome. It was like a circus: kites (our name for aircraft) everywhere. It was scarcely possible to find a safe landing place. After spending time replacing an oil pressure gauge which had troubled us on the way up, we were given a meal and told to stand by because the Bismark had moved out into open sea.
Standing near us was a Harrow (an aircraft), obsolete in 1935, a high wing monoplane capable of flying at about 90 miles per hour. It was being loaded with 250lb bombs. They were being rolled into the aircraft and chocked together with wood to stop them rolling about. The idea was that if they sighted the Bismark, the airmen were to roll the bombs out of the side door. The harrow was not fitted with bomb racks. Luckily it was not needed. It was getting on for eight o'clock at night, when our commanding officer Wing Commander Braithwaite sent the message down to prepare for take off in half an hour.
Standing at the end of the runway with engines running we waited for the signal to take off from the watchtower. We received the OK by Aldis Lamp. I was sitting next to the pilot, Sergeant Guy as he opened up the power for take off.
We had only been flying a few minutes when the pilot prepared for landing (we still had our wheels down). We landed at Skitten, the most desolate place I have ever seen, in marked contrast to Wick, which was overcrowded. Not a thing in sight - ideal for immediate takeoff. Skitten aerodrome was just being formed; there were no fences it was all open area. There were three runways in the form of a triangle, one small cookhouse, two huts and an operations room. There were no guards on duty until the army came in to guard the aircraft.
It was difficult to sleep, as it was still light at 12 o'clock at night. The next day we got word that our Navy ships were shadowing the Bismarck. We saw the aircraft off safely. They returned four hours later with the torpedoes still underneath. We knew they had not seen enemy action. After servicing the aircraft again, ready for take off, we were on standby all day.
In the evening we went into the cookhouse and could not believe the offers of food we received. They said that we could have as much bacon and as many eggs as we could eat. There was fresh baked bread, tinned fruit and evaporated milk. We had not seen the likes of it in England. The next morning we were in for a surprise, for along came a van belonging to the Church Army, containing three women. When the shutters came down our eyes opened wide - chocolates, sweets, milk and cigarettes, all off the ration for us. Unfortunately we did not have enough money for what we wanted to buy because we had left in a hurry. The Church Army always treat us very well and made us feel important.
At about 5.30 the next morning, news came in that sea action was taking place between the Bismarck, Hood, Renown, Eugin and others. The operator in the operations room went very quiet. When asked why, he said the Hood had been sunk. It was unbelievable for such a thing to happen, we were shocked to our very roots. That day was sombre indeed.
But things had to carry on and we were on instant readiness to fly to Iceland. Unfortunately we were unable to take off for two days due to Scotch mist. The Bismarck had been lost, it had escaped.
Most believed that it was heading for Norway to safety. After a couple of days it was spotted in the Atlantic by a searching Catalina (an American type of seaplane).
Orders were changed. We were put on stand by to go to St Eval in Cornwall. At the end of the day we were stood down as the aircraft carrier Ark Royal and others were coming from the Mediterranean to stop it going into Brest or some other port. Within two days the might of the Navy had caught up with it and the rest is history.
We were stood down altogether and told to relax. The first thing we did was to get bikes and cycle to John O'Groats about 12 miles away. That night we were allowed transport to Wick to see the town. It was called a dry town (no pubs I think). At the end of the stone bridge was a big wooden hut; the T.O.C.H. was run by the ladies of the area. Having very little money we were shy of going in, until one of the ladies who was on the Church Army van saw us and invited us in, saying "Enjoy yourselves, everything to you is free". What a lovely attitude! Eventually our detachment was ordered back to home (North Coates). Within six months I was on the boat going to the Far East, where I served for four years, mostly in Burma.