Interviewed by Mike Preston
John left school in 1943, at the age of 14. With the help of his grandfather, who was a friend of a Mr Ken Sharpe, the Dirctor of Taylorcraft at Rearsby, John began his working life there as an aircraft apprentice. Although he loved aeroplanes, he was not particularly interested in working on them, so he used to assist a Mr Granville Wright on the airfield with a tractor, moving aircraft around and keeping the grass down on the runways. John would occasionally drive an old Rolls Royce which had been stripped out for use as an ambulance, housing two stretchers. The fuel allowance was only five gallons a week, however, so the Rolls were not used too often! He also `manned` the fire engine when aircraft were coming in to land, never knowing quite what to expect. John recalls one particular episode when a badly damaged aeroplane approached from the `wrong` side - across the Gaddesby road from the direction of Melton - and the pilot, anxious to land quickly, ran out of grass sending fence posts and rails flying before he managed to come to a halt.
His mode of transport to work at that time was a bicycle, travelling daily six miles each way for a wage of 17/6d per week. His hours of work were 8.00am to 6.00pm with no overtime, (the site closing at 6.00pm every day) Monday to Friday. Occasionally he would sample the delights of the works canteen - mostly spam based as he recalls! - but more often than not the jam sandwiches from home kept him fortified. When Granville Wright was called up for the Army in 1944, John was called into Ken Sharpe’s office, whereupon he was offered Granville’s job, as he seemed to spend more time on the airfield than working on Austers! John was delighted to accept the job. His first boss was a Sid Windybank, the foreman of the assembly line working on the Typhoons and later, when he was more involved in the transport side of Austers, a Reg Hill who was the Transport Manager. John particularly remembers a Ken Glover and Horace Green, who were on airfield maintenance at the time. Ken was a bit of a practical joker and played many a trick on the unsuspecting Horace - pranks such as filling Horace’s newly acquired sports jacket pockets with wet sand (about which John recalls Horace being particularly upset), and leaving a neatly packaged parcel addressed to Horace for his collection which he took home to open, the contents of which were maggots which spilled out all over Horace’s kitchen floor!
When John reached the age of 17, he began to make deliveries for the company in his little Austin 7 van. He had not taken a driving test - that wasn’t a requirement until he later joined the RAF. Amongst other things, he would transport instruments to Desford for collaboration. He remembers his first car as being very small - probably only about 4` square inside. On one occasion, only having been driving for a few weeks, he was passing through Leicester, and drove into Halford Street. In those days, the traffic policeman stood on his box in the middle of the road. On approaching him, John was abruptly stopped and kept waiting for 5-10 minutes whilst everyone else went on their way - he couldn’t understand why. The policeman finally walked up to John, asked him how long he had been driving, and advised him that he was travelling the wrong way up a one-way street! That was John’s first `brush` with the law!
During John’s early days at Austers, Hurricanes were still coming in to be repaired. The Typhoon fighters came later, where they would be repaired alongside the Auster aeroplanes being built. Both Geoff Edwards and Gerry Derbyshire test-flew the Typhoons, along with the Austers and Tiger Moths. John recalls the fuselage of the Austers being made in `No.7 Works` at Syston, whereas the wings were made at Thurmaston. Johnny Marshall from Syston, a self-employed lorry driver used by Austers throughout the war, would tow the tail of the Austers from Syston to Rearsby on the back of his lorry. Transport at Rearsby included two Dodge three ton lorries, `Tiny` Taylor being one of the drivers, with whose family John is still in contact.
John recalls that the first float plane was tested at Rearsby whilst he was there. The fire hydrant, which was brick built above ground, was kept full of water `just in case` but there was no enemy action; in fact he cannot recall that there were even any air raid shelters built in the area. Another use for the fire hydrant was found, however, when the float plane was dropped into the water for testing, which proved successful!
Among the many experimental flights at the aerodrome, one in particular comes to John’s mind. American troops were carrying out experimental landings, with the wind, on a short airstrip, flying in [Hawser] and [Whacker] gliders. It is thought they were training for Arnhem. The first batch of pilots were instructed to fly to the end of the airfield but, being inexperienced, several came down too soon, landing near the control tower, which resulted in a few pile-ups. Tragically, two members of a troop were decapitated when they ran from their glider, only to be caught by the strut of another as it came down to land. John recalls 26 Dakotas flying in after the gliders, also on experimental landings.
After the war in 1945, the then Managing Director, Mr A L Wykes, invited the Press to the aerodrome to view the Austers, which had been on the `secret list` throughout the war, having been used to assist the Artillery in `spotting`. John stood by the original wooden Auster hanger with Frank Sharpe and Ken Bristow, watching the proceedings, when along came Mr Wykes in his Hillman Minx (allotted to him by the Ministry), which he parked on the airfield. He was to give the Press a demonstration, and climbed aboard one of the Austers, proceeding down the runway at no more than 100 yards. He stopped, turned the aeroplane round, and faced the Hillman. John and Ken looked at one another in disbelief, realising that `AL` was about to display a short takeoff, flying over the car. Sure enough, the throttle was opened, the tail came up and he headed straight for the car, yanking the stick back at the last second as he approached. Unfortunately he caught the bonnet with the [port leg] of the aircraft, snapping it off and ripping off the bonnet and roof of the car in the process. In spite of the collision, however, he became airborne, and did a low-flying circuit of the aerodrome before performing a perfect landing on one wheel, promptly keeling to one side and breaking a wing prop. Presumably the Ministry then reclaimed the car for scrap!
Geoff Edwards, one of the test pilots, was remembered in one particular incident. There was an area of `no man's land` at Rearsby, which housed an old barn. John could not recall who owned the barn but it was being renovated by a group of builders, whose `foreman` - not a young man by any means - got into the habit of walking over to the staff canteen each morning, carrying about ten `billie cans` to be filled up with tea. One morning, Geoff called in to see John and asked him to have an aeroplane ready in `fifteen minutes`. Asking why, Geoff said he was going to have a bit of fun with the foreman. John guessed what he was proposing to do. On schedule, along came the builder with his empty cans. Once filled, he started to make his way back to the barn when, seemingly from nowhere, Geoff appeared from the sky, zooming low towards the foreman. The poor man dropped the billie cans and fled for his life, which John recalls was at a terrific speed considering his age, and that was the last time that the builders took advantage of the staff canteen!
After the war, the renovated barn, mentioned above, housed a small aeroplane owned by Mr Rice of `Rice Trailers` who he believes lived at Blaby. On his arrival in his car, there would be a rush as to who could get to him first to help him `swing` the propeller, as he always rewarded his helper with half a crown - which, when only earning about seven half crowns a week, was a very welcome tip! One day, with Mr Rice in the cockpit, John was trying to swing the propeller, being careful to use the flat of his hand rather than his fingertips. After several unsuccessful attempts, Mr Rice asked John to take his place in the cockpit while he had a go. John switched off the engine, re-started, and Mr Rice lost the ends of several fingers.
Occasionally, if John had been sent out and returned after 6 o’clock, the then Transport Manager, Reg Hill, would allow him to take the company Morris Minor van home. One particular evening, John went on a little tour around the villages with a few friends, visiting a few local pubs and feeling like `the cat’s whiskers` driving around in the little van. The next morning, getting ready to leave for work, he looked in the tank and found he had no fuel! He found a small bottle of `Ronson` fuel which his father used to refill his little petrol cigarette lighter, and promptly poured the contents into the tank - which got him back to Rearsby, no-one being any the wiser!.
John signed up for the RAF at the age of 17 years and 9 months on 31st December 1946. He could have returned to Austers after the war but decided instead to work as a lumberjack for about a year for Jack Massey, for whom he previously worked on a casual basis whilst he was on leave from the RAF, earning three shillings an hour, Saturdays and Sundays included. Massey’s yard was at the back of what is now Branstons Garage at Queniborough. After that, John went `on the buses` as a driver for Midland Red.