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Interview of John Keeping, 8th February 2001

Interviewed by Dave Gladdish

John was educated at St. Mary’s Catholic Elementary School and Loughborough College and in 1936, at the age of 15, went on to become a drawing office apprentice with Herbert Morris in Loughborough. In 1938, at just 17 1/2 years old, his apprenticeship was interrupted when he travelled to the Air Ministry at Astra House in London for his initial assessment and `signing on` to enable him to join the RAF as a direct entry observer, and was posted to a civilian observer school in Northampton to undertake his air crew training. He was trained by pilots who flew [Anson’s] and three `observers` would work together, taking turns in navigation, observation and radio. In February/March 1939, John developed an ear infection and had to be grounded. In May, he was discharged as unfit for flying by the medical board.

This was a great disappointment to John, as he had always taken an interest in aviation having been involved in model-making at an early age, and flew as a child in [Alan Cobham`s] air circus in Dumfries and later, when the circus visited Loughborough and flew off Cotes Meadow.

John was now looking for work and, having heard of Taylorcraft Aeroplanes (possibly through Aviation Magazine), went along to Britannia Works in Thurmaston. He was interviewed by A L Wykes and, although no draughtsmen were employed at that time, with John`s enthusiasm for aviation and the fact that he could draw, he was taken on under the sole direction of `AL`. His first task was to modify the original Taylorcraft drawings from US steel tubing specifications to equivalent UK specifications, which resulted in a heavier aircraft as to obtain the equivalent strength meant using heavier UK materials.

Around July 1939, Taylorcraft had a client who wanted to fly an Auster, non-stop, to Rome which would create a world record for aircraft of that category. John spent some time scheming various tank arrangements to accommodate the amount of fuel needed for such a journey. This involved designing a multi-tank arrangement spread around the floor of the aircraft, with the main tank replacing the co-pilot’s seat. However, in spite of the fact that `AL` was keen to undertake the work, the project was dropped due to instability in Europe at that time.

John recalls that the next project for him was `AL`s` desire to fit a more powerful engine in the Taylorcraft than the current 45 horsepower [Lycoming] twin, with wooden propeller. It was decided that either a [gypsy minor] or a [cirrus minor] would be used and, as the gypsy minor was heavier, the cirrus minor was chosen. At the end of August, the day before John’s 18th birthday, he and `AL` flew to Brough and met a team from Blackburn where they saw a cirrus being installed and discussed the technicalities with the drawing office. They flew back on the 30th, war to break out on the 3rd September. The engine was delivered that week, by which time John had schemed the layout of the engine mount and new fire wall positions. John undertook the stressing himself, referring to official Air Ministry manuals, and the resulting `Model C` aircraft - the first one to be fitted with a cirrus engine, was towed by truck to Ratcliffe on its wheels, minus wings at the end of September. The aircraft was assembled and the engine runs for the first time under their control. The pilot did a circuit, landed and said it seemed okay. He then took it on a test flight, to report on its return that the aircraft was `nose heavy`. It was decided to fit weights, by means of split pins, on a bar which had been welded underneath the elevator. The pilot took off again and was very enthusiastic on his return, reporting that the aircraft took off `like a rocket`, the rate of climb being double that of its predecessor - John recollects it was something in the region of 900 feet a minute. On that basis, between October and December 1939 they were given permission by the War Ministry to build five more aircraft, then known as `Model D`s` from `Taylorcraft Plus` air frames which, due to the onset of war, were originally impounded by the Ministry. John`s involvement by this time had ceased but he understands that as they were finished, the aircraft were taken up to Rearsby to be test-flown. They were then sent down to Middle Wallop.

Around the autumn of 1939, until the spring of 1940, with little draughting work to do at that stage, John was involved in static loading tests, supervised by the Air Registration Board. He worked from one of the bays at Thurmaston, travelling to work from Loughborough by train to Syston station, and then making his way down to Thurmaston. He was then sent to Rearsby, continuing to use the train from Loughborough to Syston, the remainder of the journey taken with the aid of a lift from a colleague also travelling to Rearsby by car. Work on Tiger Moths had just begun through an organisation which had been set up for repairs to be carried out by civilians on military aircraft. John’s job was to categorise and record Air Ministry owned instruments in readiness for inspection. In the summer of that year, similar work began on the Hurricanes, carried out in a newly built hanger close to the one used for the Tiger Moths. A further hanger was built towards the end of 1940, after John had left, to house the extra Hurricanes coming in for repair.

In early January 1940, after a very heavy snowfall (the worst John can remember), AL returned from France, announcing that someone would be coming over the following Monday, and the aircraft had to be ready. John consulted the company library, which consisted mainly of aviation reference books and magazines. He found an American reference book, showing photographs and details of all aircraft on the American register. The only one shown with skis attached was the [Ballanca C], powered by a [radial] engine - a 4/5 seater. There was a sideways-on photograph, with dimensions. John scaled the length of the steel-tubed skis from the dimensions given in the text, in relation to the length of the aircraft, and converted his findings for incorporation on an Auster. He produced drawings which were sent down to the workshop and, after just three days, the skis were made. They were taken to Rearsby to be fitted for a trial, and John witnessed them working perfectly. The Frenchmen duly arrived on the Monday and were happy with the demonstration. John thinks that that was the first time an aeroplane in this country had flown on skis. Later, of course, Austers were fitted with a ski/wheel attachment to the undercarriage.

John recollects that approximately in the Spring of 1940 the Army were interested in what he thinks at the time were known as the `Taylorcraft Plus` air frames (he thinks these would be the original `Model C`s` before the adaptation to the `Model D`), to be used as observation posts, which required certain flying characteristics. `AL` had recalled reading an article back in 1938 published, John thinks, in `Popular Flying` magazine which described some [autunnel?] tests, showing a hinged plate (about 30" long x 6" wide) on top of the wing, which modified the air flow over the wing and gave it increased lift and different [stall] characteristics. It was decided as an experiment to produce and fit two of these `spoilers` to the wings of an aircraft and, among the flying personnel involved (including, John recalls, someone by the name of `Jack` but he cannot remember his surname!), was a Danish lady by the name of Toni [Strodel], a young woman in her 20`s who `lived` for flying. Her brother, Jan, joined the team at a later stage. On a test flight, the flaps proved very successful in slowing down the aircraft - stability was good and it handled well - but it was travelling so slowly that it was not possible to record the air speed on the instruments. To enable the team to discover at exactly what speed the aircraft was flying, it was taken down to about 50 feet above ground and a car was driven alongside it, revealing that the aircraft was in fact flying at a mere 25 miles per hour, under full control. The project, however, did not get past the Air Registration Board, as John and his colleagues felt that in order for these aircraft to work efficiently as observation posts, they needed to improve the pilot’s visibility, and therefore needed to raise the position of the pilot’s seat. This could not be achieved with the existing air frame, so they devised a `mock-up` which raised the cross-bracing across the wing attachment points by approximately a further 12". Unfortunately, however, they encountered difficulties with stressing levels and the project had to be abandoned.

John recalls the `camaraderie` of discharged ex-servicemen in late 1940. He and some of his friends would, on a Saturday night, do a little tour of some of the pubs in Loughborough, ending their day with a visit to `The Boot Hotel`, next to the Town Hall in the Market Place. The atmosphere was jolly; the victory of the Battle of Britain was uppermost in their minds. John remembers a group of young men who were very badly injured and disfigured in their duties and who were treated by an expert in skin grafts, etc. by the name of Sir Archibald [McKindo]. He was based in the South of England and was renowned for his skills. Once these injured men had achieved a certain level of recovery, they were sent up to Loughborough College, given accommodation which suited their requirements, and received medical and often psychiatric help. A group of 8/10 of these young men would arrive at The Boot by coach every Saturday night and John remembers one in particular. A big, strapping man originally from New Zealand would play the piano housed in the lounge bar. He had suffered terrible injuries and wore a head brace which meant he was not able to look lower than the ceiling. His brace incorporated a mirror which enabled him to see where he was going. John recalls that he was an amazing piano player and kept everyone entertained all evening, with pints of beer piling up on top of the piano from his appreciative audience. He would play, drink, play and drink until he literally fell over and could play no more!

John was later transferred to Mountsorrel in late winter 1940/early Spring of 1941, and was involved in the production of Hurricane fins - a move which he welcomed as it was much nearer home and he was able to travel the whole journey to and from work by bus.

It was in 1941/42 that `direction labour` came into being. Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft, which were based at Baginton Airport in Coventry, were originally involved in the building of [Whitleys] but later transferred to production of the Mk III Lancaster. In order to support their production, they had `farmed out` manufacture of parts of the aircraft to various `dispersal` factories. One of those factories was at the former Leicester Corporation Tramways Depot on Blackbird Road, and John was sent there to work as an inspector. Although John was still able to travel to work by bus, he remembers the journeys as being pretty horrendous, the buses being pre-war - very noisy with the heating rarely working, and very uncomfortable, real `bone-shakers` in fact!. Work there entailed the main airframe jigs being set up - two sets for each section (the nose, the centre section, including the engine mountings and the undercarriage mounts, the rear fuselage and the rear centre section). Initially, they were just building the bare frame and the skinning over the floors which had been built elsewhere. The main activity was assembling the components in the jigs, adding the frames and skinning. Most of the assembly was undertaken by the men, but the riveting was carried out by the women employees who were almost entirely former hosiery workers, directed to that activity from their own factories, presumably through lack of work.

In the winter of 1942, John met his future wife, Olive; over lunchtime drinks at The Boot. She had been transferred to the Pay Corps in Nottingham, after working as a heavy transport driver in the Royal Artillery, driving `Marathons` which were the equivalent of tank transporters and were being used to transport such equipment as searchlights, anti-aircraft guns, etc.

John and Olive were married in 1943, initially living with John’s parents. He then received a `Direction Notice` to join a company known as Power jets Limited, based at Whetstone. John voiced his opposition to the move due to the fact that he was newly married, the journey to work was a considerable distance from home, and he would have to go into lodgings. John was given the choice of either making the move or going back into the services. He chose the latter, and it was assumed that he would re-join the RAF as a navigator, having previously served as a direct entry observer. Halfway through his training he was advised that he would in fact be re-joining as a flight engineer, which he thinks was perhaps due to the fact that there were fewer flight engineers than navigators. John trained at the RAF initial training wing which was housed in apartment blocks in St.Johns Wood, London. He recalls the conditions as being extremely cramped and uncomfortable, each room typically housing twelve bunks, on three tiers, and the trainees would be marched to and from kitchen and dining areas housed elsewhere. This was at the time of the `flying bomb`, and John remembers on one occasion actually being blown from his top bunk, next to an open window, due to the blast from a flying bomb. On another occasion, he recalls walking down Wardour Street with some of his colleagues and hearing a massive bang overhead. They looked skywards and witnessed a huge cloud as a result of a V2 exploding prematurely above them, which caused several passers-by to be literally blown off their feet.

From London, John was sent to the air crew training centre at Paignton, where pilots, navigators, gunners and flight engineers were all together. This John found to be very pleasant after the experiences of London. It was late summer 1943 and all the hotels and boarding houses along the seafront had been taken over. John recalls having to march everywhere, be it to the allotted dining room, billet, training area for use of dinghys, aircraft recognition, etc., and the men became quite fit as a result!. More enjoyable evening walks to a nearby village, 2-3 miles away, would result in John and a few of his friends indulging in the local cheap, but very strong, cider!

After Paignton, John left for Heaton Park, which was the transit centre for air crew either going overseas to, or returning from, training schools before being sent on to units where they would join the rest of their crew. This was in late 1943, and the Lancastrian, Halifax and Stirling squadrons were fully operational and `crewed up`. The replacement rate which had been planned did not go well, and therefore there were many trainees left `in limbo` with nowhere to send them, hence the necessity for Heaton Park. John recalls the centre as being a `miserable` place, sited to the north of Manchester. The park was taken over by the RAF, and there were literally tens of thousands of fit, healthy, ambitious young men herded into the centre with nothing to do but eat, sleep, drink and drill, with no `leave` allowed. John recalls the winter of 1944 being a very wet and miserable one for everyone based at Heaton Park. There was, however, one occasion which lightened the mood considerably. A film was being produced by Richard Attenborough (the title of which John cannot recall), and he, his film crew and one of the central characters of the film stayed at Heaton Park in order to film air crew training in progress, resulting in a number of John’s colleagues being immortalised on the `silver screen`!

The end of the war finally came, and John made the decision to stay with the RAF until the turmoil of post-war civilian life had lessened and hopefully day-to-day living became a little easier. He signed on for four years as a mechanical draughtsman, which enabled him, his wife and young son to be housed in `married quarters` over that period. During that time, he was posted to RAF Turn Hill. The area was very impressive, housing huge arched hangers covered in grass as a means of camouflage. John’s job was to assist with the design and installation of bomb sights on the `Washington`, which was the UK version of the American `B29`. It was now 1947, and John’s family had moved into a cottage, John hitchhiking from Turn Hill to visit. Servicemen could ill afford train or bus fare at that time, and John recalls the general public being extremely sympathetic and always willing to offer a lift. One of his colleagues, however, did possess a motorbike and, learning three days after the event that his wife had given birth to their second son (whilst sitting in the camp cinema, enjoying a film!), he commandeered his friend to give him a ride. This was in late November 1947 and John was dressed in standard great coat and uniform, perched on the back of his friend’s bike, travelling through the night. He arrived at the hospital at 1.00am the next morning, both rider and passenger absolutely frozen stiff, to be met by a very formidable Irish ward sister who ticked him off for being so late, and her words ring in John’s ears to this day!

In 1949, John was posted to the Transport Command Development Unit at Brize Norton, where he and his family were again housed in married quarters. Flight trials for `Hastings` (the new transport aircraft) were being carried out there. John was involved in the `Berlin airlift` and certain logistical problems in getting coal into Berlin. The coal was in the form of `briquettes` and the means of transporting was by putting hoppers into the fuselage of the aircraft. These would then be despatched from the air, as opposed to landing the aircraft and then unloading. The trials involved various shapes, sizes and density of the briquettes which would be flown over Brize Norton airfield, which was good news for the occupants of the married quarters, as they benefited from free fuel!

John then posted overseas. 21 days after John was given his posting notice, his wife was given notice to quit their quarters and, due to a clerical oversight, continued to receive such notices every month for the next year, therefore managing to remain at Brize Norton unofficially for the first of two years that John served as a mechanical draughtsman. John returned in 1951 and was discharged from the RAF.

He then obtained a job at Rearsby aerodrome, initially working as a draughtsman. The site was of course very different from when he first left it, no military aircraft remaining. Post-war Austers were now being built, and John was involved in the detailed draughting of components for the B4 [ambulance?] freighter, and later as flight test observer for the aircraft. Such tests were carried out at `Leicester East`, now known as Leicester Airport. The pilot was Ranald Porteous, and John recalls a frightening experience for them both when, after a day’s work, they were flying back to Rearsby. There was low cloud and Ranald somehow lost his way but felt that they were in the right area by the amount of time they had spent in the air. Ranald circled the area for a while, not being able to see anything through the thick low cloud, when he spotted a church spire which he thought belonged to Gaddesby church. They proceeded to descend with trepidation, with a maximum of 50 feet below the cloud to enable them to land. Thankfully, Ranald`s assumption was correct and they did manage to land safely. John worked at Rearsby for about a year, before going on to work for Brush Electrical in Loughborough as a draughtsman.

All of these transcripts are available in a single file in several formats.

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