War Veteran Bert – one of the lucky ones!
A BEACON SPECIAL INTERVIEW
Second World War veteran Bert Earley describes himself as ‘one of the lucky ones’, and when he talks about his war-time trips journey around Britain, repairing vital aircraft under the constant threat of German bombing raids, it is easy to see why! Bert, born, brought up and still living in Cowes, is now 96, and the second eldest of four brothers, three of whom served their country during the war. Eldest brother Frank recently celebrated his 100th birthday; George has sadly passed away, as has Ron, the youngest, who did his National Service after the war ended.
Bert was born in 1920 in Oxford Street, Northwood, and then lived at Somerton Farm, before his family moved into a cottage in Somerton Lane in 1928. He attended Northwood School, leaving at 14, but delayed his departure by one term so he could go on a school trip, cruising to Casablanca, Gibraltar and Corunna in Spain – and all for five guineas, which is £5.25 these days!
He made money catching moles at Somerton Farm – earning one penny for every mole he caught – before joining a building firm as an apprentice carpenter, earning five shillings (25p) a week for working 46 hours. He was 21 when he joined the Royal Air Force, stationed initially at Cardiff, and learning his trade as a flight mechanic.
During the war Bert was moved around the country numerous times – working at RAF stations at Filey in Yorkshire, Harwell near Newbury for 18 months, then Norfolk, and finally RAF Hemswell in Lincolnshire, where he remained until 1945 when the war against Germany ended. He recalls: “Harwell was nearest to the Island, and I came home about every six weeks for a weekend. I came out the barracks gate, thumbed a lift down to Southampton and then came back to the Island. It often took me most of the weekend to get home and then back to camp so I only had a few hours at home. You had to make your own way about and it wasn’t easy.”
As a flight mechanic, Bert had to go where he was needed to prepare, service and repair the planes, including Wellington and Lancaster bombers, that were flying missions during the war. He remembers one night during the war Britain lost more than 90 Lancasters. He somehow managed to remain unscathed, until late one night in November, 1944 when he was in a van that collided with a Lancaster as the bomber was being towed by a tractor on the airfield in pitch darkness. He said: “The tail plane hit the van and smashed it up, and I had to go to the sick bay to have pieces of the windscreen removed from my head. But as I said, I was one of the lucky ones.” Although the war officially ended in May, 1945, he was then posted initially to Bombay, travelling on a troop ship for 17 days, before going down through India to Ceylon – now Sri Lanka – to help with the combat that was still raging against Japan. “I used my bike a lot to get around this country, then sold it for 2/6d (12 .5p) before going to Ceylon,” he said.
The conflict with Japan ended in August 1945, following the nuclear bombing of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Bert came out of the RAF on February 1st, 1946.
“When the Japanese surrendered it was a great relief. But when I was told I could come home, it took me three months. I went from Ceylon to Bombay by boat and train, sleeping on wooden seats, then I was stuck in Bombay for six weeks waiting for a plane to take us home. I was there over Christmas, and for dinner I had a turkey leg, but you couldn’t cut it because it was so tough. I reckon it was a vulture not a turkey!
“I then flew to Karachi in a Dakota plane and went via the Persian Gulf and Palestine to Tripoli, which took nine hours in a converted Liberator plane that had wooden seats where the bomb bay had been. Eventually I was flown into Cambridge, where I was stuck in a hut with a wet blanket to keep me warm – welcome home! The whole trip took 35 flying hours, and I wondered if I ever would get back.”
Two weeks after leaving the Army, Bert married Jean, a girl from County Durham he had met, but seen only a few times because of the war. They were married for 68 years, before Jean passed away two years ago.
He returned to the building trade after leaving the RAF, and stayed there until 1965, when he worked on the family milk round around Cowes, Northwood and Gurnard. Sometimes he would be up at 2.0am to start deliveries. The milk round was sold in 1980 to Unigate, where he worked for nearly three years before retiring in 1982. He added: “I’ve always had an active life, I enjoy doing things. But as I say I was lucky because I could have spent the entire war fighting in North Africa, Germany or Italy, and who knows what might have happened to me!”