Maurice Snowball - War memories

My name is Maurice Snowball and I was born in Sunderland in 1922. I joined the RAF when I volunteered for Air Crew and started to do my training to be Flight Engineer in 1944. You have to do the basic marching and drill and things like that first. I went down to Lord`s Cricket Ground where all Air Crew had to report at the time. We were billeted in nearby flats. Royal Court was the one we were in. First we were issued with uniform of course, and then lined up for the injections. I had two teeth out as well because they said that they were dead and would not be good for someone in Air Crew. I ended up with my left arm aching with the jabs and my mouth was swollen. We got back to our flat and the corporal said, `Come on, I want this floor cleaned and everything tidied up!` So we set to but when he came in again, he reckoned that the flat was not clean and he wanted the job done properly, - ` and it will do your arm good as well!`

We had two Fleet Air Arm chaps with us who were transferring to the Air Force, and they told us to lay on our beds . They were going to do it the Navy way! So they fetched two buckets of water and swilled the floor. Opening the French windows, they brushed the water out and sent it cascading down the outside of the flats like a water-fall. The corporal came running back shouting ` What`s this?` They replied, ` This is how we do it in the Navy. We swab the decks.` Anyway, the corporal went off and never came back again. Then we were sent to Bridlington where we did arms drill on the prom. I had been in the demonstration platoon in the Home Guard so I knew a bit about arms drill. Now two lads could not march properly. They would move their right foot and right hand forward at the same time. Sergeant Rice told me to take them away and teach them how to march properly. I took about twenty minutes and they could do it perfectly all right. We went back and we all set off and the two lads got it wrong again. `Right,` said the Sergeant, `put them in line somewhere. They`ll learn eventually!`

Next we went to RAF Locking near Weston-Super-Mare where we started training for about 8 or 9 weeks. From there we went to St Aphens where all flight engineers were trained. Up to now we hadn`t seen an aeroplane but one day they said` Right, you`re going up in the air today`. We went up in an old Anson aircraft and I couldn`t believe it. I sat down on the seat and heard the engines revving up and I thought, `When are we going to take off?` I looked over the side and there were the hangers down below me. I hadn`t realised we had taken off already! We had about an hour`s flight. The date was significant but we didn`t know it. While we were flying we saw a lot of aircraft with white markings on the wings flying south. Even the Instructor Pilot had never seen anything like it. He wondered if they were American. They were, of course, the D-Day markings which were put on planes as distinguishing marks just before the Normandy landings. D-Day was the next day.

When I had qualified as a Flight Engineer and following two weeks` leave, I reported to R.A.F. Blyton No. 1662 Heavy Conversion Unit where I was crewed up with the aircrew I was to fly with to train on 4-engined heavy bombers. R.A.F.Blyton was near Gainsborough. We were posted to North Killingholme in Lincolnshire, right on the Humber, any nearer and it would have fallen in! It made it easy for the navigators. All they had to do was find the Humber and we were back. We did two training flights before we started on operations. The first time we went to Ploauen in Czechoslovakia which was nearly a nine-hour flight. The next time we went to Potsdam which is 30 miles south of Berlin. In the report afterwards it stated that some bombs did fall on the suburbs of Berlin. Then it was Heligoland which was a daylight operation with fighter escort. They wanted the submarine pens destroying and also to drive the Germans off the island. At that stage of the war, there were no submarines there as the submarine menace was just about beaten. Mosquito aircraft dropped some kind of small bomb in the sea making the water foam. This was a marker for the bombers making a perfect turning point as they went in. As the froth subsided another bomb of the same type would be dropped. It was quite remarkable.

Then we went to Bremen. That was a daylight. We flew over Wormshaven where there was a lot of flak. When we got there, the mission was cancelled because of cloud making the bomb-aiming uncertain, and the fact that the Army was there waiting to start the push for Berlin. So we had to bring the bombs back again. The navigator would tell me how far back we had to go and as part of my job - I think I was a Flight Sergeant by then - I had to estimate how much fuel we would use up. We had to make sure we were below the safe landing weight. If necessary we would have had to fly round using up the fuel before we attempted to land. But luckily we were well under the safety level. After all, we had been all the way to Bremen and back. North Killingholme was a new aerodrome and was very very cold in the winter which was when we were there. There was a stove in the barracks but the ration of coal was a bit stingy so we ended up burning anything to keep warm. It was lovely sometimes when the top got really hot. We would put the kettle on it and soon have a cup of tea. There was never any hot water on the camp so we used to go into Gainsborough to the public baths and have a nice hot bath. Our uniform shirts had loose collars which we took to a Chinese laundry in Gainsborough. The shirts may not have been ironed very well but the collars always looked immaculate!

We spent a lot of time in Gainsborough. Sometimes I used to cycle to Immingham and take the tram to Gainsborough. Ken, the bomb-aimer, had a little three-wheeler car and the others would squash into it and meet me at the dance. They would have been to the pub on the way, but I didn`t drink. We would meet up at the dance in Gainsborough. That is where the navigator met his wife. Years later, I found out that they all used to go back to this young lady`s home where her mother would cook them eggs and bacon or chips or whatever she could get. Nobody told me as I cycled my lonely way back to the billet!

I was very keen on football and it was my ambition to be a professional goal-keeper. In fact, I had played for the junior team at home and three of us were invited to play for Sunderland reserves. But on the Friday before the Saturday I was due to play, they discovered that I was going into the Air Force shortly and that was that. My invitation was cancelled because they were looking for young men who were in reserved occupations so that they wouldn`t get called up. I played down at Locking for the Wing team there. We played a semi-final which actually was like a final as the two best teams met. We played ninety minutes for a draw, then extra time also for a draw. So it was decided to play on until one team scored. Altogether we played for two and a half hours and I had the game of my life. But the centre-forward came up and shot. I touched the ball but it hit the post and went in. We had lost! Even so, some of the spectators charged across and carried me on their shoulders, with me weeping my eyes out.

I was invited to come off my course and take up a PE Instructor`s course instead but I couldn`t because if I came off the course that I was on, I would have to go back to my reserved job in Sunderland. This was a pity as there was a man there who represented Aberavon Athletic and Cardiff City and on my performance that day, he thought I could make it as a professional footballer. If it hadn`t been for the war, I might have been but it would have had to be with Sunderland! I missed a chance when I came out of the Air Force. I had had an operation for a slipped disc in my back. I went home and a friend asked if I were home for good and was I ready to play football as he had had an enquiry from Sheffield Wednesday who were looking for a young goalkeeper. I couldn`t take that up either. I think my footballing prospects were jinxed! The war was drawing to an end although we didn`t realise that there were only a few weeks to go. The authorities got word that the people in West Holland were starving. The Allied Armies had gone past that part of Holland, heading for Germany as fast as they could. The message came through Queen Wilhelmina and Prince Bernhardt and they got the message to Churchill and Roosevelt. We heard that Roosevelt said that nothing could be done until the war was over. The Dutch people in that part of Holland had a terrible winter. They had little food, hardly any fuel and no gas. They were fed on soup that was brought in milk churns by barge and rationed out.

Queen Wilhelmina appealed to Churchill again and he gave permission for the food, that was stored up in hangers waiting to go, should be dropped to help these people. It was called Operation Manna. The plan was to get the Germans to sign a truce but at first they refused saying that our planes would be photographing the defences and positions of the German troops. But things got so desperate we were going to set off on the 29th of April 1945 whether the Germans signed or not. The Germans were informed that if they shot any of these planes down they would be prosecuted as war criminals. Bad weather stopped the flights starting and we went on the 30th. I found out later that the Germans signed on the 1st of May. The agreement was that we were to fly no higher than 500 feet and we had to stick rigidly to the track we were given. We could see their anti-aircraft guns following us round but none of them fired. One or two planes suffered a bit of rifle fire. We dropped the food which was in hessian sacks on parachutes onto the racecourse. We dropped imperishable goods such as flour, tea, dried eggs and so on. Arny De Yong, who was the Chairman of the Food and Freedom Foundation later on, was a boy at the time and he had an illicit old-fashioned crystal radio, and he heard on this radio that the planes had set off from bases in Lincolnshire. He ran out into the street shouting, `They are coming! They are coming!` All the people rushed to the racecourse and we could see them as we came in all waving. We went to Walkenburg, Bladingon , Rotterdam and Amsterdam and other places and there were thousands and thousands of people at all of them. We could also see how the ground was flooded as the sluices had been opened to hold up the Allied advance. People had to move into the towns and were all squashed in and starving.

On the 3d of May, the Americans joined in. They were very aware of the publicity. Their planes carried cameras which we were not allowed to have. Also they took some of their ground staff to let them see what it was like flying over now that it was safe to take them. One fortress went down into the sea with 14 people on board and only 2 survived. Nobody knew what happened. One of our aircraft saw it go down so it circled round and called in the Air Sea Rescue. A dinghy was spotted but it was upside down with no-one in. Some bodies were picked up and 2 of them are buried at Cambridge. We held a Memorial Service there when the Dutch people came over. Air Cadets formed the Guard of Honour. It was very touching. We were invited over 40 years later to the first reunion in Holland. The RAF dropped 7,000 tons of food and the Americans dropped just over 4,000 tons. The Lancaster could carry more food in one load than the Flying Fortress. Some of our aircraft went with one less crew, (the bomb-aimer), so that they could carry more food. After 8 or 9 days the war ended and then they could take the food in by sea. When the squadron closed down we had to remuster to a ground trade whilst you waited for your demob number to come up. Our flying days were over and we became what was known as Redundant Air Crew.

I went down to Meltsham to be retrained as a driver MT (motor transport) and was posted to El Addan in the Middle East. Although I was qualified to drive, I hadn`t done any driving for about seven months. The Sergeant asked me if I could drive a 7-tonner and I said that I thought I would be all right. He took me into Tobruk to fetch a load of fuel. I drove in but the Sergeant decided that because of the full load he would drive back. He could tell I was inexperienced. On the way back, he taught me how to double-declutch when changing gear going up a hill. One day I was sent in an old American Ford car with the C.O. and the Adjutant from Tobruk to Derna. When you go up on the cliff-tops the road to Derna was very steep and winding. You look over the side and see the wrecks of vehicles that had gone over previously! Coming back up this hill, I went to change down but the C.O. said, ` Leave it in that gear, it will go`. I tried to put it back into that gear and panicked and stalled the engine. I was told to put the hand brake on, which I did, but as I took my foot off the car started to go backwards. He had to put his foot over onto the brake while I got out and climbed in the back. Then he slid over and drove back. He really slated the MT Officer when we got back for sending me out!

We had some German POWs working in the camp. One of them was supposed to have been Rommel`s driver, and one of our officers had him for a driver, he wouldn`t have one of the RAF drivers. He said `If he could drive for Rommel, he can drive for me!` The German prisoners were very good at driving and looking after the vehicles. We had a fire engine that was laid up because they were waiting for spares and this German prisoner was allowed to go out - with someone with him - into the desert where there were all sorts of equipment left behind by the various armies as they went backwards and forwards. The RAF corporal who went with him could not believe the stuff that was piled up and left behind. The prisoner knew exactly where to find what was wanted and they came back with the right stuff and repaired the fire engine. One CO liked everywhere to look nice and tidy and he used to have the sand at the side of the road raked and woe betide anyone who drove on it. He would go mad if he saw tyre marks on this sand. One of the German prisoners, whose job it was to take the fuel round to the various cookhouses, got blamed when someone drove over the raked sand. He got 7 days in the prison camp!

Sometimes I would be driving the jeep, guiding the incoming aircraft to where they had to park when I would get a message, ` Nip out and clear the runway. We`ve got camels wandering about there!`. The war was over by now and I was sent back to Cosford for treatment for a slipped disk. The consultant in Heliopolis had advised me not to accept an operation. I took the alternative treatment which was to wear a plaster jacket. Later on, discovering that many people had the operation with success, I decided to have it. I met my wife at a dance and I explained that I wasn`t wearing a corset, it was a plaster jacket! I liked dancing very much. I was dancing almost every night in spite of the slipped disc. There was a massive dance hall in Sunderland. At Christmas time and holiday time, 4000 people would be dancing there. I have photographs showing the crowds on the dance floor. Amongst this throng I used to look out for the girl with slim ankles. I liked to dance with her and one night I asked her if she was coming to the tea-dance the next day. She said she thought not, so I asked her to come to the pictures with me instead. That was our first date and later we got married.

She came from Seaham Harbour and her name was Elsie. When we were still flying, the pilot was a Flying Officer, the rear-gunner was a Flying Officer and the mid-upper gunner was a Warrant Officer. He and the rear-gunner had both been instructors but their school had been closed down so they were posted to us to go on ops. So we had two very experienced gunners. Then we had a wireless operator and a bomb-aimer, Ken Thom, who came from London and was a golfer in peace-time. He always said that he would play for the Walker Cop team one day, and he did! My old pilot contacted me 40 years later. He had seen my name as a new member of the Air Crew Association and he thought that with a name like Snowball, it must be his Snowy! So he got in touch with me and told me that the navigator, Ken, was a retired Police Superintendant at Boston. To think that I had often been to Boston without knowing!

I went to Nottingham to try to trace the mid-upper, Harry. He had been Transport Manager at Boots and they passed on my phone number and three days later I heard from him. The following year we all met up for a lunch together. We tried to trace the wireless operator but without success. We did hear that he had died. I got a book out the other day and saw the pictures of the bombing in Sunderland. A pal and I used to get our bikes out when the sirens went and we would ride up to Tunstall Hills and watch the bombing. I was sitting up there the night Binns, the big store in the centre of Sunderland, was bombed with explosive and incendiaries. I was an apprentice at a big engineering works at the time and I was told we had to do voluntary overtime but when it came to Saturdays I wouldn`t do overtime. I had my football to go to. As I was an apprentice they couldn`t make me work but the foreman said to me that the day I was 21 and classed as a man, he would make me work on Saturdays.

Jokingly I replied that if that was the case, I might as well join the Forces because at least I would get some sport and some leave! I thought about what I had said, and I decided that if I could volunteer to fly the Sunderland Flying Boats - which were very famous at the time - I would go and join up. So when I was 21 I took the day off and went to Durham for my medical which I came through in July. I left it until almost the last minute before I told them at work that I was going into the Air Force in Air Crew. The foreman said that he would get me off but I knew that if you volunteered for Air Crew you could go, no matter if your job was reserved. They needed Air Crew desperately. This was in 1943. That is how I joined up and I look back on my service and remember all the good pals that I made. I think it is the comradeship that people remember most.