Interviewed by Peter Stoddart
Jim’s love of aviation began when he lived next door to an aerodrome in [Newtown Ards] in Co. Down, Northern Ireland, which was a private aerodrome owned by Lord Londonderry, who was the Secretary of State for Eire just before the Second World War began. Jim and his younger brother would sit by the fence of the aerodrome and watch the Scottish Airways plane fly in each day which carried the mail. He and his brother would wave to the plane each morning, convinced that the pilot waved back to them, which was confirmed many years later when Jim met the pilot - Wing Commander McDowell DSO, DFM & Bar, who was eventually a Battle of Britain fighter pilot and the first CO of the 616 Squadron `The Meteors`, and who was a test pilot at Bitteswell for the Trent Meteor - and he did recall waving to those two young lads many years earlier.
Jim recalls as a young boy a visit to Northern Ireland by members of the Nazi hierarchy which, in his capacity as Secretary of State at that time, Lord Londonderry and local residents were required to host. War began and when bombing took place in Newtown Ards, it was the view of some locals who were unaware of the `bigger picture` that Lord Londonderry was to blame, hence he and his family were frequently targetted with stone-throwing whenever they visited the town. However, the aerodrome was quickly mobilised by the RAF and aircraft such as [Lysanders, Martinets, Defiance] which were [target tugs] for aerodrome squadrons such as RAF [Ballyhalbot] and [Bishopscourt].
In 1941, the Air Training Corps was looking for recruits, the minimum age being 16. However, with the aid of a `little white lie` Jim was signed up at the age of 14 and kitted out with his uniform. Unfortunately for him, about a month later, a new officer was appointed in the ATC squadron who proved to be Jim’s old schoolmaster, so he was sent packing! He continued to watch the aircraft, which flew over his house as they lived only about 200 yards from the aerodrome boundary. Jim later learned that the minimum age for joining the Corps. had been reduced from 16 to 15, at which age he immediately re-joined. He loved being part of it all, wearing uniform in the same colours as the RAF men, and being allowed to have `sight and smell` of the military aircraft.
Training for gliders was then introduced, which nearly proved to be Jim’s downfall. About ten cadets were paired with an experienced pilot to fly in a two-seater `side by side` Falcon 3 glider. One pleasant Sunday evening, Jim was taken for a ride and as they were coming in to land, Jim recalls thinking that they were not travelling very fast - the pilot had mis-judged the wind and didn’t make it to the runway, instead landing on the nearby hockey pitch. That was Jim’s first experience of `aqua plaining` which became a much-used term in later years! They slid along the grass, reaching a bank which housed just one bush with a trunk of about 8-10" - they slid up the bank and a large branch from the bush passed into the fuselage, between the pilot and himself, breaking the back of the glider. Henceforth he was referred to as `pranger Morrow`!
In spite of his misadventure, Jim soon gained his `A` certificate. Indeed, he learned of his qualification whilst being teased by other trainees, when they were interrupted by an adjutant who informed them that `pranger Morrow` was in fact the first trainee in the squadron to have gained his `A` certificate!
Jim’s chief gliding instructor at that time was a Bill Adcock, who had been awarded a [Silver `C`] whilst in Poland. Jim discovered that Bill Adcock was originally from Leicestershire and, along with twin brothers who lived somewhere between Rearsby and Thrussington, built and flew such aircraft as the `flying flea` around the site of the then `Black Cat Cafe` - unbeknown of course to Jim until he later moved to Leicestershire.
Time wore on and, due to a problem with his eyesight, Jim realized that he was never going to become a pilot, but did wish to become involved with aviation in some form. During his time with the air training corps, one of the courses he was posted to was at RAF Holton in Bucks. Whilst there, a notice was put up inviting men who were either on deferred service for air crew or anyone who wished to work for the Ministry of Aircraft Production to apply for posting to contractors` aerodromes around the country - a scheme introduced by Lord Beaverbrook in an attempt to reduce the rate of incidents/accidents at the aerodromes. Jim applied and, on passing an exam, was sent to RAF Westcott for training. He recalls taking the train to Waddesdon but fell asleep and missed his stop, which resulted in him having to telephone for a driver to collect him. A young lady duly arrived to deliver him to Westcott but, on the journey, their vehicle broke down. Jim had a little past experience with the mechanics of motor vehicles, having driven a van as a butcher’s apprentice years previously, and managed to remedy the problem, arriving at RAF Westcott later than expected. He accompanied the driver to the sergeants mess for her to explain the delay and, on hearing of Jim’s assistance, was invited to stay for tea - a most unusual event for a mere cadet!.
During the month of May, 1945, Westcott was one of the stations used for flights carrying p.o.w`s back from Germany and Italy, using Lancaster’s, Stirling’s, Halifax’s, Dakotas and Liberators. As many as 25 men would be transported at a time and, still being on a war footing, accompanied by a full crew of 7 (bomber command, as opposed to transport). Jim recalls that the crew would work out the approximate centre of gravity for the aircraft and would mark positions on the floor with numbered chalk `rings`, giving each of the passengers a corresponding number to ensure that they sat in the correct position. The Liberator Jim remembers as being the only aircraft that could safely transport that amount of men at any one time over the Alps. It was a very emotional moment for the p.o.w`s as they landed, and Jim recalls many kissing the ground on alighting the aircraft. Many were in a shocking physical state, and the Commander would seek volunteers to look after the men as best they could, and to make the hangers as comfortable as possible for them.
Whilst at Westcott, Jim was trained as a runway controller which would entail taking position to the side of the start of a runway, housed in a black and white van, from where he would signal to incoming aircraft, via green and red markers, if and when it was safe to land. He would be accompanied by two airmen who would check the tyres of aircraft for hydraulic leaks before they were taxied onto the runway for takeoff. This was a very necessary exercise due to the high intensity of flights and in fact Jim recalls the taxiing runway having to be shut down for a couple of days for repair due to the huge amount of takeoffs and landings. During that time, limited flying of Wellingtons took place, and Jim managed to `scrounge` what proved to be some very interesting flights when off-duty. On one such occasion, he flew with the master gunner, trainee gunners and pilots, having to stand on a box below the [astrodome] whilst the master gunner would give instructions to the pilot to take evasive action on being attacked by two Hurricanes - not a pleasant experience when flying at 3 to 4 g`s, standing on a box!
After his training, Jim was informed that he was being transferred to an aerodrome at `Rearsby`. He knew of Leicestershire as being somewhere in the Midlands, but had not heard of a place called Rearsby. He was advised by one of the flight controllers that Rearsby was the home of Taylorcraft Aeroplanes, and where the `Auster` was made for use by the Army. Jim hoped that he would in fact be transferred to one of the jet aerodromes and felt at that time that he was being `short-changed` by having to go to Rearsby! However, he was sent to Home Farm in Rearsby as a `paying guest`, courtesy of an organisation which found accommodation for the RAF and ATC in local areas. Amongst his fellow guests, Jim recalls a local representative for the Leicester War Agricultural Executive, a geologist and an oil driller who were based at Queniborough M.U., a buyer for Auster aircraft and a pilot who later became one of the instructor pilots of the Auster Flying Club. Jim recalls walking up the small lane towards the aerodrome and being met by the gate policeman. He saw ahead of him many Austers dotted around and, as he walked further, was astonished to see a large number of wrecked aircraft which proved to be Typhoons. He then decided that there was more to Rearsby aerodrome than he had at first thought. He started work in the tower, with the air control officer and four ATC cadets, as employees of the Ministry of Aircraft Production. The chief test pilot at that time was a Geoffrey Edwards who became well-known locally and nationally as a singer, having won a talent contest held at the Savoy Cinema in Leicester, singing `Old Man River`, and who was accompanied by a talented pianist by the name of Fred Wells who lived in Thrussington.
Jim recalls the overall atmosphere at Rearsby, particularly at lunchtimes, as being quite unique. The canteen was very good and was used by all employees of the company, including directors and foremen. There was installed in the canteen a `pianola` and they would be regularly entertained by a talented pianist, possibly a `Mr Green`, who would operate the pedals whilst eating his sandwiches, switching over to play the keys when he had finished!
By May/June 1945 Jim thinks the production rate of the Auster aircraft would have reached as high as twenty per month but then, with the end of the war in May, many changes took place in the Ministry of Aircraft Production and the following elections overwhelmingly being won by the Labour party. Organisational changes then took place which resulted in the Ministry of Aircraft Production becoming the Ministry of Supply. Work continued at Rearsby, with work on the rebuilding of the wrecked Typhoons tailing off around October/November 1945, and interest in the civilian Austers was increasing, at which time `Taylorcraft` became known as `Austers`.
Around Easter time in 1946, Jim recalls a `demonstrator` Auster which was fitted with a glider tow hook. A very well-known racing driver at that time, by the name of [Prince Bera Bonjay(?)], who, during the war, had worked on gliders for [Slingsbys] arrived at Rearsby to carry out demonstrations. Jim, having time on his hands whilst working in the tower, was then given the job of assisting [Prince Bera] when flying, and would be his `right-hand man` when needed to drive out to him with a trailer and help de-rig the glider and bring them back to the aerodrome. [Prince Bera] was in fact one of the first to buy an Auster and, due to Jim`s association with him, he made Jim his first passenger. Jim recalls [Prince Bera] taxiing over to the control tower to collect him. They flew to five to six thousand feet on a very clear day, and could actually see The Wash area of the east coast. Many years later, Jim was reading the life story of `Marshall’s of Cambridge`, in which it was reported that the first licence to be issued by the Civil Aviation Authority after the war was to a pilot who had trained to fly the Auster at Cambridge - Prince Bera himself!!.
Interest in gliding grew, and Jim recalls what he thinks was the first national gliding competition taking place at Rearsby, with competitors from London, Yorks., Cambridge, Derby, Lancs., etc. taking part. Jim remembers a girl by the name of Ann Douglas, who acted as a very organised and competent steward during the competition. She later married a very famous Commando by the name of [L... Welsh]. He later died and she became leader and spokesperson for the Light Aircraft Association - a post which he thinks she may still hold at around eighty years of age!
Also in early 1946, when authorisation to fly gliders was given, Jim met someone by the name of Jack Rice (of `Rice’s Trailers, Cosby). He had been a member of the old ATC gliding school at Rearsby during the war, and owned a glider named `The Tipsy`. Jack had kept the glider in a blister hanger on the other side of the aerodrome and Jim, again now having time on his hands, would assist Jack with getting the glider out of the hanger and he began flying with him - the first civilian aircraft that Jim had flown in at Rearsby.
As time went on, the Ministry of Supply decided that the contractors` aerodromes would in the future either continues to be provided by the Ministry, contractors paying them for the service, or the contractors would provide the service themselves. Auster Aircraft could in no way afford to pay the Ministry, so decided to provide their own. When the unit ceased as a Ministry of Supply flying control unit in July of 1946, Jim was offered the job of providing the air traffic flying control service at Rearsby, having been given the incentive of being assured of plenty of opportunity to continue with his flying career. Most of the other companies were larger than Austers, and could afford to employ people at an attractive salary - something which Jim was considering. However, he was then advised by the Ministry of Supply that he was being posted from Rearsby to Bitteswell - to power jets at last! - as he was still classed as being a temporary civil servant. The resident chief test pilot at Rearsby at that time Jim recalls as being George [Snarey].
The only time Jim saw a jet at Rearsby was when a Vampire flew over during an air display, seeming to just disappear. The following day, Jim and a colleague were working in the control tower when a driver arrived, enquiring as to where he could find the jet for re-fueling. Jim and his colleague looked at each other, and jokingly sent him on a `wild goose chase` down to the blister hanger. On his return to the tower, whilst he was complaining that there was no jet in the hanger, Jim looked down and noticed a trail of brown grass leading down to what was known as the old black hanger (thought to be the old pre-war flying club hanger). Jim and Pete ran down the steps of the tower and across to the hanger, sliding back the doors to discover that, sure enough, there stood a Vampire jet! They could not believe their eyes, and Jim clambered up to the canopy to take a look inside, verbally comparing it less favourably with the Typhoon. While having a good look, a voice behind him shouted for him to get down, with the words "Do you mind, boy, I am hoping to fly this thing!" and, jumping quickly down, Jim was confronted by the tall, blond pilot, one Geoffrey [DeHavilland], who was unfortunately killed about a year later. However, Jim had the pleasure of seeing the Vampire take off after re-fuelling - the first and last time he had seen a jet aircraft at Rearsby.
One of Jim’s tasks at Rearsby, along with his brother Tom who also worked with him, was to obtain information from visiting aircraft. When such an aircraft landed, either he or Tom would walk over to the aircraft with a notepad (not having the benefit of radios at that time) and enquire as to the pilot’s name, where the aircraft had come from and was going to, at what time the pilot would be taking off and, if he required any fuel, advise the pilot of what was available. On one such occasion, an [Anson] flew into Rearsby when interviews were taking place for a test pilot. Jim thinks there were five crew on the aircraft which included three pilots. One of the pilots went for an interview, leaving the other two in the aircraft with the engine running, as Rearsby had no re-starting mechanism available at the time and, being late in the afternoon in November, they felt that it would be best to keep the engine running. The interviewee came out, got into the aircraft and it duly took off. The next day, Jim heard that the plane had gone missing and was presumed to have crashed possibly in the Derbyshire hills or even the North Sea, maybe through poor navigation. That incident was Jim`s first taste of how the Press reacted to such news, with Rearsby being under seige for a couple of days, seeking information, and in particular the `hounding` of his brother Tom until the flight control officer at that time, Bill Mann, told them in no uncertain terms to stop bothering them, and to approach the Ministry direct.
The different personalities of the men come to mind, such as the original flying control officer at Rearsby when Jim began working there - a chap by the name of Trevor Benwell who was an ex Spitfire pilot and, along with Jim, was in charge of three other cadets. He had suffered a couple of accidents which caused him to be medically discharged, and he undertook a flying control officer’s course. Trevor lived in nearby Thrussington with his wife, who was expecting a baby. Trevor had just purchased a 1930 Morris 10, his mode of transport up till then being the aerodrome bicycle. There then ensued a `scramble` as to who would inherit the bike! It was noticed that Trevor had started to turn up late to work, and he would complain that the car would not start and his heavily pregnant wife had to push it to get it going. At the end of one particular day, he said to Jim that no doubt he would have trouble starting the car again, and Jim offered to have a go. He duly checked all the obvious areas, not finding anything wrong, pressed the self-starter and the engine fired immediately. Trevor was amazed and said "what on earth did you do?". Jim replied that all he did was check it out and press the self-starter. "What self-starter?!" came his response - he didn’t know one existed! Jim had worked at Rearsby for around five months when Trevor left to join the Ministry of Civil Aviation as a flying control officer. The cadets in his charge at that time, along with Jim, were his friend, Peter [?] who was on deferred service for air crew and later went on to do photography, a Les [Langley] who went into the Air Force, a Dave Porter who left shortly after Jim arrived and still lives in Leicester - Jim has in fact recently made contact with him after fifty years - and the fourth was his brother, Tom.
By this time, the Auster Flying Club had been formed, and during his last six months at Rearsby Jim had been running the flying control side for the club out of normal hours, organising pilots and pupils. The company generously provided 5-6 Austers for the purpose, which of course was good advertising for them, and pupils were charged 15/- an hour for the [Autocrat J1] and, for the little [Lycoming], 10/6d an hour. Jim’s weekly wage at that time was £2/10/-, paid by the Ministry, and 35/- per week was paid to his landlady which paid for bed, breakfast, evening meal and a lunch at weekends!, 10/- of which was automatically deducted from his wages, the Ministry contributing the remaining 25/-. Jim recalls canteen meals being served at the princely sum of 7d for a full meal each day which, at the end of each month, could be claimed back, and he remembers feeling very well-off when the money was reimbursed to him!
During his time assisting with the flying club, when he had amassed 5 hours flying time with his teacher, a Peter Selby, it was suggested that as a reward for his efforts out of hours, he be given the opportunity to fly solo. He was referred to pilot Geoffrey Edwards, a big man as Jim recalls and one not to be argued with! Jim was duly taken up on a flight with Geoffrey Edwards and they flew around the area of Queniborough but, due to less than favourable weather conditions, he was not given the opportunity to fly solo on that day. However, on the following Monday morning, Jim was notified of his posting to Bitteswell and henceforth was no longer classed as an honorary member of the flying club, merely an associate member which unfortunately did not qualify him to fly solo - an opportunity lost until about 35 years later when he finally took out a private pilot’s licence!.
Jim remembers Geoffrey Edwards later leaving Rearsby to work for David Brown Tractors, and then went on to the Middle East. In about 1959, a report appeared in the Aviation Press that a British aircraft salesman who, during the past four years, had made 78 round trips to Jeddah, had just clinched a £100m defence contract with the Saudi Arabians for Lightning’s, Jet Provosts and Marconi Radar Systems - his name was Geoffrey Edwards. He was later reported to be the main instigator in the signing of a major contract with the Americans and the Shah of Persia at that time, reputed to be in the region of £350m.
When Jim was posted to Bitteswell, residing at Blaby, he was accepted by the ATC 1461 squadron at South Wigston as a cadet, and later became a sergeant. Shortly afterwards the resident flight sergeant left to join the Royal Navy, and Jim was promoted to flight sergeant. With the end of hostilities, the Air Training Corps began to amalgamate squadrons, and 1461 was joined with Squadron 1F at Oxford Street, where Jim was sent. As there was already a flight sergeant there, he was demoted back to sergeant until, about six weeks later, that flight sergeant left to join the RAF, and Jim was reinstated back up to flight sergeant again!.
In 1947, Jim was keen to pursue his gliding and he heard that a school had been started up at Bruntingthorpe. He duly introduced himself there to C.O. Flight Lieutenant Alfred Hughes, who was at that time the Managing Director of Sandeman & Co., yarn merchants of Welford Place. He was an ex Royal Flying Corps pilot, who was a great friend of Roy Winn, of `Winn`s Cafes` and Jack Rice of Rice’s horse trailers at Cosby. Jim was taken on as an instructor but was advised that he could not also be an ATC cadet at the same time as being a civilian instructor. His C.O. therefore got in touch with the Ministry, and was advised that they were not aware that he was still a cadet and, as far as they were concerned, he was now classed as a temporary civil servant!, thus solving the problem. In 1948, Bruntingthorpe was required by the Americans, and Jim and his colleagues were therefore moved to Desford.