In April 1918, as the ‘Great War’ thankfully drew towards its end, the Royal Flying Corps and the Royal Naval Air Service amalgamated to form the Royal Air Force. The idea of flight and its usefulness in combat, was still in doubt in certain quarters, but a small number of incredibly brave young men had already proven without doubt that their efforts could be decisive in winning a war that had literally become ‘bogged down’ in the trenches.
Just three years later, a veteran of Gallipoli, recently home to Burnley from his own war with the East Lancashire Regiment, celebrated the arrival of a son; Leonard Parry. It would have been a stretch at the time to imagine that almost a century later, Len’s life would still be entwined with ‘Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines’, as he continues to share his own experiences with the next generation of RAF pilots.
Len attended St Mary’s school in Burnley, leaving aged 14 to begin an apprenticeship as a gas fitter in the town’s gas works. At 19 – in 1940 – and like so many of his pals’, he was eager to ‘do his bit’. Initially Len had been ear-marked for service with the Royal Engineers, but when he and a friend reported to the recruiting office in Blackburn, his friend was instead listed to join the Royal Navy, while Len was sent home. Not deterred, he and a work colleague decided to visit an RAF recruiting office and he was immediately accepted for training as RAF ground crew. Given his technical experience as a gas fitter, the RAF decided Len was destined to repair aircraft flight instruments, initially to specialise on the Short Sunderland Mk 1A flying boat’s automatic pilot.
Len first tasted military life, when he was sent to Padgate, Lancashire. Here he was kitted out with everything a novice airman would need – and completed his initial RAF administration. He was then sent south to the RAF College at Cranwell in Lincolnshire, to begin his technical training. In 1940, there was an urgency to get trained personnel to operational units as quickly as possible, so Len did little ‘basic’ military training – instead concentrating on familiarising himself with the extensive range of instruments in use across a wide range of aircraft. He completed his 6 months technical training at RAF Melksham in Wiltshire, before being posted to 58 Squadron RAF, who were operating Armstrong Whitworth Whitley’s from Linton-on-Ouse. However, after only 2 months at Linton, he received a further posting, this time to RAF Seletar in Singapore, as an Aircraftsman Class 2 (AC2).
In January 1941, he sailed in the troopship ’Empress of Australia’ from Liverpool, to rendezvous with a trans-Atlantic convoy, which was forming up in Belfast Lough. To avoid German U-Boats, the convoy initially headed north, before skirting Greenland and Nova Scotia and then down the US Atlantic sea-board. The voyage to Bombay, via Freetown, Cape Town and Mombasa, took 11 weeks, travelling at the vulnerable speed of 7 knots. The journey was only punctuated by a very welcome 3 days shore leave in Cape Town.
In Bombay, Len transferred to the luxury liner ‘Aquitania’ which then continued the journey to Singapore at a more respectable and somewhat safer speed of 22 knots. On arrival in Singapore, Len joined 205 Maritime Squadron RAF at Seletar airfield. The Squadron was equipped with the Short ‘Singapore’ Mk 3 flying boat. Although the convoy from Liverpool had carried the first detachment of ‘conscripts’ to the Far East, the working environment on the island was very relaxed, with work finishing at midday and shore leave permitted. Only issued with his uniform to socialise in, a priority was to commission a local tailor to make him his first suit.
In April 1941, the squadron converted to the Consolidated PBY Catalina, a flying boat provided by the USA under the ‘Lease Lend’ scheme. As the USA was yet to enter the war, special crews were ferried as ‘civilians’ out to Manilla in the Philippines to collect the aircraft. 205 Squadron were then committed to becoming operational on the new aircraft – and Lens responsibility was to become acquainted with the new ‘Spey’ autopilot.
The arrival of the Catalina was welcomed by RAF crews. The aircraft carried a crew of 8-10, with enough space on board to carry a spare crew in flight. The aircraft had a range of 6000 miles and could remain in the air without refuelling, for 23 hours. With additional fuel tanks, crews could carry out ‘double sunrise’ sorties, being capable of staying in the air for an amazing 32 hours.
In early December 1941, the first notable action saw the Squadron despatch a pair of aircraft to patrol the South China sea, searching for a Japanese convoy, reportedly heading south from Formosa (now Taiwan). One aircraft returned safely, but the second was shot down.
The day of the Japanese air attack on Pearl harbour in Hawaii, was also the day that Singapore island came under air attack. Raids continued daily until February 1942 and were always carried out by an arrowhead formation of 27 aircraft – 27 being a lucky number for the Japanese. Singapore had little air defence capability, only being equipped with Westland ‘Wildebeest’, Bristol ‘Blenheim’s, the Catalina’s and Australian Brewster ‘Buffaloes’. Churchill had retained all Spitfires and Hurricanes for the war at home. In early February ‘42, 205 Squadron were withdrawn to the safety of Java, but Len’s ground crew remained, along with an aircrew, to try and repair a damaged Catalina. (Ground crew were often considered as important as aircrew and were often the first to be pulled-back, in the event of a withdrawal).
On 13th February, the crew was hard at work, when they heard a commotion outside the hanger and then a group of Japanese Special Forces troops charged in. All of the crew were captured. They were left in the charge of 2 Japanese soldiers. On 15th February, Singapore surrendered, and the Japanese forces celebrated by getting very drunk. The hanger prisoners concluded this would be their only chance to escape.
When air raids started on Singapore, it had been decided in the RAF Seletar Yacht Club to prepare their 2 Chinese sailing junks, as a means of escape, if the island was captured. These vessels had been hidden in Mangrove swamps on the west of the island. With intoxicated guards sleeping, the 16 servicemen then made for one of the junks and moved it out of the mangroves into the open sea, under cover of darkness. Having no compass, it was decided to head due west for Sumatra, using ‘dead reckoning’. Luckily, after 2 days, they were picked up by a Dutch East Indies patrol boat and taken to Sumatra. the RAF personnel were then flown south to Batavia – now Jakarta, in Java. After being fed and watered, but still in the clothes they stood up in, Len’s ground crew served with the Dutch Air Force for 3 weeks, before all the 205 personnel travelled by train to the west side of Java and then by sea to Columbo, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), to re-join their squadron.
By this time, two of Len’s close friends had been killed and eventually, over 200 personnel from 205 Squadron RAF would lose their lives before the end of the war. The motto of 205 Squadron RAF was ‘Petama di Malaya’ – First in Malaya – and the Kranji War Memorial Singapore lists the names of members of the squadron, who lost their lives between 1942 and 1945. Len was able to visit the Memorial during a trip to South- East Asia in 2005; travelling as part of the ‘Heroes Return’ scheme, established by the Royal British Legion and the UK government.
On returning to 205, Len and his comrades were issued with new uniform and equipment and given local leave to recover. Len then went with an aircraft detachment to Koggala in the south of Ceylon, to carry out maritime operations in the Indian Ocean. Following this period, Len’s crew were posted to the Hindustan Aircraft Corporation, at Bangalore in India, to help establish an overhaul facility for the Catalina’s. The base was managed by Americans with an Indian workforce. Len’s crew were responsible for ground running and air-testing the aircraft – including carrying out flotation tests in a nearby lake. The chief test pilot was a former policeman, with whom they soon established an excellent relationship.
During his time at Bangalore, Len was almost killed whilst air-testing one Catalina. Being a high-wing monoplane, the fuel in the Catalina was carried in the wings above the fuselage. After being airborne for 30 minutes, fuel began leaking into the cockpit near the navigators table. The crew used a bucket from the galley to collect the leaking fuel and when the bucket was full, it was poured into the bilges under the floor. Once over the lake, the pilot took the decision to land as quickly as possible. Aircraft fuel is very volatile and the fuselage was already full of fumes (the aircraft was carrying 2000 gallons). When the pilot selected his wing floats down, a spark from the electric motor ignited the fumes. The pilot was forced to drop straight onto the lake, in a bid to kill the flames. Unfortunately, one float dug into the water and the aircraft performed what is known as a ‘ground loop’. The starboard engine was ripped off – and with a damaged hull, the aircraft sank. Luckily the crew escaped, although the pilot had a badly gashed head and Len damaged a knee cap.
Again, Bangalore was reminiscent of a peacetime location, partially because of the large number of European refugees from Singapore and Malaya. There were lots of dances and other social occasions and the following two years were exciting for Len. At this point in the war in the Far-East, a letter took around 3 months to get to the UK and as Len had previously been posted as ‘missing’ in Singapore, it was April ’42 before his family, back home in Burnley, learned he was he was alive and well.
In 1944, as a Leading Aircraftsman, Len was posted to 354 Squadron RAF, based in Cuttack, near Calcutta (now Kolkata). Equipped with Lockheed B24 ‘Liberators’, the squadron patrolled the Bay of Bengal. Because of ongoing reports of Japanese submarines operating in the western Indian Ocean, Len transferred with his crew to Aden to assist in the search for them. After a fruitless period, it was back to Cuttack, via Italian Somalia and the island of Socotra, were a further 6 weeks was spent patrolling sea lanes.
In 1945, 354 squadron was sent to Mineria in Ceylon, to patrol and carry out mining operations along the west coast of Malaya, towards Penang. In May ’45, Len was posted home to England and he joined 242 squadron at Stoney Cross in Hampshire, who were operating Short ‘Sterling’s’ in an air transport role. The Squadron then converted to the Avro ‘York’, which was the successor to the ‘Lancaster’. The Squadron received a specially equipped, silver painted ‘York’, for use by PM Winston Churchill. Extensive work had to be carried out on it to prepare it for use. On one occasion, a ground run was being supervised by a Flight Sergeant, while Len and his crew were on board doing the checks. Unfortunately, the pilot mistakenly raised the undercarriage, instead of the flaps – and the aircraft collapsed onto its ‘belly’, showering concrete everywhere with its propellers. Luckily everyone was unhurt, but the pilot received 9 months detention – and the Air Ministry – a bill for £45000.
Corporal Parry was finally demobbed in June 1946 and he returned to civilian employment as a gas meter repair man. After meeting and marrying Muriel, he moved to Skipton in 1950 and began working for her father, who ran the local ‘Radio Relay’, from his home in Devonshire Street. In return for a weekly payment, over 1000 homes in the town received radio broadcasts from The Home Service and The Light Programme, via a network of roof-top cables, which Len installed and maintained.
Len then joined Yorkshire Electricity as an outside sales rep, before transferring to the Gas Board in 1972, this time as a commercial sales rep. He ended his career in the Gas Board ‘Work Study’ department. Len retired in 1983.
As the RAF increased throughout the 20th century, Len continued to play a vital role. He was a founder member of the RAF Association branch in Burnley, before transferring to the Skipton branch. Amongst his many roles with RAFA, he spent 30 years as a Welfare Officer, working tirelessly to support any ex-servicemen and their families, who were experiencing difficulty.
As a nonagenarian, when many of us would be quite content to take things easy, Len is still serving his beloved Royal Air Force. Twice-yearly he returns to the RAF College at Cranwell and talks to the next generation of RAF pilots and aircrew about his experiences in the Far-East. As we say; ‘Thank You’ and ‘Happy Birthday’ to the RAF this year, we must also take a moment to pay tribute to the men and women like Len, who have given extraordinary service, over the last 100 years.
Down Your Way Magazine September 2018