Till We Meet Again - From Wedding to war

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On September 19th of this year, the Vintage Wings of Canada open house featured the reunion of James “Stocky” Edwards and his Second World War Kittyhawk fighter. While Stocky received much-deserved acclaim and gratitude that day, two other veteran pilots, Sergeant Pilot Frank Waywell and Flight Sergeant Harry Hanna, were also in attendance.

Both men met a few years ago as members of the Oakville Golf Club and were astounded to learn they had both been Prisoners of War in the same camp – Stalag Luft IVB – a camp dedicated to the incarceration of airmen. While they each had spent more than two years there, neither had met. While in Gatineau for the Open House, they were introduced to our resident veteran Spitfire pilot and raconteur Bill McRea. After a short conversation with McRae, Frank Waywell, uncovered another stunning coincidence – he and Bill McRae were both part of a 50 pilot re-enforcement to the Middle East that travelled to Africa via Takoradi, Gold Coast (now Ghana) onboard the battleship HMS Nelson. Neither had met, but most certainly stood together on the deck of Nelson.

Their animated meeting with McRae inspired both Waywell and Hanna to put down on paper for the first time in 60 years, their thoughts and memories from that time. The following vignette by Frank Waywell tells us of that sea voyage that he and Bill McRae took so long ago. Fate still plays its part 67 years after their voyage. Let’s let Frank take us back:

"On the 7th of May, 1942, I graduated from 59 Operational Training Unit at Crosby-on-Eden in Cumbria, in what is known as the Lake District. With a total of only 202 hours flying time, 54 of them on Hurricanes,  I was declared ready to join an operational squadron. The following day, with the necessary paperwork complete, I travelled home for nine days leave.

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Three photos which hint at the fact that young men grow up quickly in war. The left photo is Waywell when he joined the Royal Army Medical Corps as a Conscientious Objector at the outset of hostilities. Frank speaks of his original CO decision and why he changed his mind. "After the horrors of the first war many of my generation were veryinfluenced by the pacifist program.  I certainly was one of those who appreciated and greatly admired the many war heroes, but was horrified at the carnage and the stupidity of that war.  I appeared before the tribunal for conscientious objectors. My position was that I would do anything to save life, but at that stage I could not in my conscience justify taking somebody else's life. I stated quite clearly that if I ever came to a different belief I would not hesitate to change. This position was accepted and accordingly I went into the Royal Army Medical Corps. My initial training was in Leeds in Yorkshire, followed by a considerable time in Aldershot. It was from there that we could see the fires from the bombing of London but we were not allowed to go to help because they were keeping us in reserve for the anticipated invasion of England. It must have been during this period that I began to realize that it was only force that would stop the mad man Hitler. I was then posted to #4 Field Ambulance Unit in the 2nd Division of the regular army stationed in the countryside of Yorkshire. I spent the night of my 21st birthday on guard duty two hours on duty with 4 hours off. At this time I had decided that I would seek a transfer into the RAF and with the intention of becoming a fighter pilot, and amazingly enough an order came out that certain ranks in the army could apply to transfer to the RAF for service as aircrew.  This certainly simplified my application for transfer and on April 26, 1941, reported to Stratford on Avon for transfer into the air force.

The next photo is of Frank as a young airman and the final shot is his photograph taken after he was captured and made a POW. It is evident that much of the joy has gone from his face - realizing that he will not see his young bride for a long, long time. Rest assured that it returned after the war!

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Frank Waywell (second from right in middle row) stands at attention in his brand new Royal Air Force uniform after transferring from the Royal Army Medical Corps at Stratford-on-Avon. Photo via Frank Waywell

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Waywell's graduating class from Initial Training Wing. Frank is 6th from the right in the third row. Waywell remembers. "After 2 weeks orientation I was in the group sent to St. Andrews to form the first unit through the new Initial Training Wing at St. Andrews University. We were billeted in Roussacs Hotel overlooking the Old Course 18th Green. This was a 6 weeks ground course for pilots. Our CO was Squadron Leader McCauley, the Walker Cup player. He obtained temporary membership for a few of us in the local private tennis club. I only hacked my way around the Old Course once, as there was not too much spare time, and no way could I learn to play in only 6 weeks. The tennis turned out to be amazing, as I found myself playing with 2 Polish Army Officers. Their unit had escaped from Europe and was stationed nearby. It transpired that they had been members of the Polish International Tennis Team. I found a completely elevated game to play.  Today, Frank is an avid golfer, playing several times a week at age 89. Photo via Frank Waywell

Arriving late in the evening, I visited for an hour with the beautiful Alice, my bride to be. The very next day we were married and went by train to the resort town of LLandudno on the North Coast of Wales for our honeymoon. It was to be a short but glorious time for us. We climbed the 3,560 foot slope of Mount Snowdon and danced in the evenings to the latest Andrews Sisters hit “Apple Blossom Time” at the restaurant where we had dinner. The music was beautiful and the words so appropriate to our May wedding:

One day in May
I'll come and say:
"Happy the bride the sun shines on today!"

What a wonderful wedding there will be,
What a wonderful day for you and me!
Church bells will chime
You will be mine
In apple blossom time.

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There is no doubt why the young Waywell is smiling, for he has just married the breathtakingly beautiful Alice Hughes at the Withington Methodist Church, Withington, Manchester. The Minister (with his hand on Frank's shoulder) was Rev Norman Burns, a Navy Chaplain who had spent 3 years with the Grenfell Mission in Labrador. Small boat in the open season, dog sled in the winter. He was back in England and lived with Waywell's family for a few months. He couldn’t wait for his chaplaincy but joined up for coastal patrol on the East coast of England.  A regular commission and his chaplaincy came at the same time months later. One of the best chaplains the navy ever had. At sea he took his turn on watch. Alice worked in an office in the centre of Manchester. She had to take her turn with a steel helmet, a bucket of water and a stirrup pump on the roof of the building during air raids to put out any fires.

Behind with his Air Gunner badge is Alice’s brother Frank Hughes, who was originally a Wireless Operator/Air Gunner. He flew in Blenheims and after raids over Germany the squadron was transferred to Algiers. Tragically, the Squadron Leader of Hughes' squadron pressed on with a mission with a full squadron without meeting up with the fighter escort. Every plane went down. Frank finished up POW in Germany where he met a neighbour from home who had been there a couple of years. The day Alice and her mother had a letter from this friend to say Hughes was safe they had the message that Waywell was missing in action. Photo via Frank Waywell

Things were happening pretty fast for us. We returned home to find a notice requiring me to report at Wilmslow, in Cheshire, which I knew to be an overseas posting base that was fairly near home. I was one of a group of fifty newly-minted fighter pilots. After inspection each morning I applied for a sleeping out pass to be with Alice. After three days the rookie Squadron Leader was so annoyed with two guys who would not make up their beds that he grounded us all.

I went to the orderly room and demanded an interview, where I told him such action was against regulations, and demanded my pass. Telling me not to say anything, I got my pass every day, even the night before we moved out.

The time with my bride was fast coming to a close however. The fifty of us boarded a train for Scotland, where we embarked on the massive battleship HMS Nelson at Gourock on the Upper Firth of Clyde, and sailed from there on May 30, only 21 days after my wedding. I was not to see my beloved bride nor my home again for more than three years.

The peacetime complement of HMS Nelson was 1,000. Wartime was 1,500 plus 500 passengers. Our group was split up and my little section was placed in an inner room which appeared to have been a library. With nowhere to hang hammocks, we slept on tables or benches. By the time it reached our area, the air was third hand but we were excited to be on our way. The creature comforts would not improve for me for the next three years.

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HMS Nelson ploughing through medium seas. One gets a clear view of her truncated stern where once a heavy gun turret was planned. The shortened stern caused a vicious cork-screw wallowing in ocean swells. Photo: RN

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HMS Nelson was a formidable-looking gun platform with a rare three turret forward deck. Photo: RN

We sailed in Convoy WS19P way out into the North Atlantic to avoid submarines for as long as possible, and after several days came back across the Bay of Biscay. HMS Nelson had been designed to have three gun turrets forward and one aft. Due to the peacetime armament agreements, this would have put Nelson over gunned and over sized, so the rear turret was eliminated from the design and the stern shortened. As a result, in rough seas the truncated ship twisted and turned like a corkscrew. We had one call to battle stations as U-boats had been reported in the area. Otherwise, life was quite monotonous.

A small aircraft carrier, HMS Argus, with her escort (HM Destroyers Salisbury, Keppel, Leamington, Wells, Beagle, Douglas, Blackmore and Derwent) was with us from the Clyde. Argus left the main convoy on June 5th.  This was HMS Argus – ferrying aircraft to Gibraltar to be put aboard another carrier and launched when within range of Malta.  We were relieved that we were not the pilots for that operation.

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HMS Argus was a British aircraft carrier from 1918 until 1944. She was the world's first example of what is now the standard pattern of aircraft carrier, with a "flush deck" enabling wheeled aircraft to take-off and land. She began the Second World War as a training carrier, but was pressed into ferrying service after the sinking of the carriers HMS Glorious, Courageous and Ark Royal early in the conflict.

As we got farther south, it was much warmer.  We saw flying fish and strange sea birds. Below decks, it was hot and muggy.  We all wanted to be in the open as much as possible, but it was forbidden to sleep overnight on deck. Before dawn each day the guns were checked and the turrets were traversed back and forth. Unfortunately two men ignored the order and were crushed to death by a traversing gun turret. Both Waywell and Bill McRae were part of the burial at sea detail - which they discovered 66 years later.

The convoy sailed into Freetown and we were transferred by lighter to a small passenger vessel which was said to have operated in the St Lawrence Seaway. The conditions were better in that we were not as cramped for space, but there was no air conditioning and all the flour on board was rancid.

After a few days we docked in Takoradi. This was the point to which aircraft bound for  the Middle East were shipped in parts and assembled - eventually to be ferried in stages through Lagos, Kano, Khartoum to Cairo with many refueling stops en route.  At that time the organization was in the process of establishing a pool of Ferry Pilots who would be familiar with the aircraft and the territory. We had been losing too many airplanes en route for various reasons.

Because of the problem with malarial mosquitoes we were issued with tropical kit which included pith helmets, long sleeved shirts and almost knee-high suede boots which had to be worn from 4:00 pm until bedtime. We were there about seven days. The local taxis were small pick-up style trucks with benches and a roof for sun protection. People would be carrying all kinds of goods including livestock.  The drivers liked to get up speed and then disengage gears and switch off the engine to save fuel. Most of the women were bare-breasted.

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The market place in Takoradi was a primitive but colourful experience for the young Waywell. Photo: Frank Waywell

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Waywell and fellow RAF pilots in new shorts and pith helmets do a little haggling in the Takoradi market.  Photo: Frank Waywell

With about 23 others I was flown by Pan American Airways in an early version DC-3. My recollection is of aluminum bucket seats down each side of the aircraft and no seat belts. We stayed overnight in Kano on July 4th and were shown a movie in the open air

After several refueling stops we arrived at Khartoum, Sudan. There we were told to eat at the RAF Mess. We now know that we were being held back as Rommel was attempting to by-pass Alexandria. After just one poor meal at the Mess, I said to two of my pals “We are going back to the Pan Am dining hall until they throw us out”.  We got away with it.

After about a week we flew on with stops to Cairo and ended up in the Transit Camp at Almaza near Heliopolis. From there we went on to No.1 Middle East Training School and then to 250 Squadron, where fate awaited me."

Sergeant Pilot Frank Waywell
Kittyhawk Pilot, 250 Squadron, Western Desert Airforce

Postscript

In 1943, Frank went down with engine failure in the middle of a strafing run in Tunisia near the coastal town of Sfax and was captured.  He was first interned as a POW in Italy and then Germany (Stalag IVB)

Four years ago he discovered that one of his golfing friends, Harry Hanna, had also been in Stalag IVB
At Vintage Wings open house, he met Bill McRae who had been one of the 50 pilots aboard Nelson outbound for Takoradi and had been made part of the funeral detail with Waywell.

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No.1 Middle East Training School, where Frank attended a conversion course to the American built P-40. The school was located in the Canal Zone between Cairo and Suez. Photo: Frank Waywell

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Sergeant Pilot Frank Waywell in the North African Desert and the aircraft that he would eventually fight with - the P-40 Kittyhawk. Judging by the lack of Squadron codes, this was probably at the Middle East Training School (METS) the OTU for Kittyhawk training.  Photo via Frank Waywell

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Three 250 Squadron Sergeant Pilots on Christmas Leave in 1942 in the city of Alexandria. L-R A friend named Gus (last name forgotten), Syd Spencer and Waywell. Three days to forget the war, but nothing could be better than getting back home to Alice. Gus was Missing in Action a few weeks later.  Frank had to sort his possessions for return to his family. Now he  feels horrible that he just cannot recall his surname. With only moderate education he was a great guy, probably the closest to Frank on the squadron.

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Waywell (left) and Spencer (second from Right) en route to Almaza transit camp. Photo via Frank Waywell

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Random photos from a flying career. Clockwise from top right.  With one of Waywell's best friends F/S Syd Spencer, stationed at the 239 Wing Base in October 1942 – waiting for the Alamein burst out.  Bottom Right: Prisoner of War in Capua, outside Naples in Italy. I occupied some time helping out with administration of Red Cross supplies and food parcels. I had planned to hide In the roof of the Red Cross hut after the invasion of Sicily, but on the way back to camp from the station we were turned back in a panic and sent up to Milan. There the Germans took us a day late by freight box cars to Germany. Bottom Left: Hurricane Pilot Graduates of 59 OUT. Now qualified to join a Squadron in action – with a grand total of 202 hours flying time!  Top Left: Downtown Cairo. Probably dodging the Shoe Shine gangs of boys. Photos via Frank Waywell

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Italian Prisoners of War near a 250 Squadron airfield - looking happy and relaxed to be out of the conflict and alive. Photo Frank Waywell

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The same cannot be said for Frank and his fellow RAF pilots en route to a new posting - awaiting a train on a bleak North African desert siding. Photo Frank Waywell.

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Some of the "Staff" at Stalag Luft IVB.  The photo comes from Flight Engineer James Hopkins - 77 Squadron Halifaxes - was incarcerated there from early September 1943 for the duration ( He is still in good health !) As they left the camp that had been deserted by the guards he was able to purloin a photo of the 'domestic staff'.  Photo via Derek Hopkins

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Stalag Luft IVB. Here Frank would spend many months awaiting the end of the war. One thing, more than anything else, kept him going. Next photo!

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Waywell left the arms of his bride, the former Alice Hughes, just days after this photo was taken of her during their honeymoon. Thoughts of her kept him company during the years in the desert and in prison.  Almost three years to the day of their wedding (May 9th, 1942) VE day (May 8th) was celebrated and Frank was on his way home to her. A lucky man indeed. His beloved wife Alice passed away in 1982.

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For a man of 89 years, Frank Waywell still has his boyish looks. He jumped into the cockpit of the Vintage Wings Kittyhawk (which, other than the 260 Squadron codes, was identical to the last one he was in - on the Tunisian desert floor) and sat there for nearly 20 minutes. He even got to travel in it - about 100 feet as it was towed. The smile on his face put smiles on everyone else's.  Photo: Peter Handley

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Once a pilot, always a pilot. Waywell chats with Mike Potter at the Open House in September. Photo: Peter Handley

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The Vintage Wings of Canada Open House in September was a wonderful opportunity for some of our veterans. Frank Waywell (second from right in front) a P-40 Kittyhawk pilot, and Harry Hanna (Right) a Spitfire pilot made new friends from old warriors. Hanna flew with 602 City of Glasgow Squadron and was shot down on the coast of France in 1943. Frank Waywell flew with 250 Squadron in the Western Desert - on some of the same ops as Stocky Edwards (center) in 260 Squadron. Photo: Peter Handley

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