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Authors: Jennifer Elkin

Aspecial duty

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CONTENTS

Foreword

Introduction

Thursday 23rdApril 1964

Chapter 1: Arrival at Tocra

Chapter 2: Christmas at Tocra

Chapter 3: 148 Squadron Moves to Brindisi

Chapter 4: March/April 1944

Chapter 5: Sunday 23rdApril 1944

Chapter 6: Rescued by Partisans

Chapter 7: With Russian Partisans

Chapter 8: The Journey Home

Chapter 9: Home

And Finally

Afterword

Appendix 1

Appendix 2

Appendix 3

Appendix 4

Appendix 5

Acknowledgements

Notes

Bibliography

Copyright

For

Rita, Pat and Susan

‘The Team’

With someone like you, a pal so good and true…

Rita, Pat, Susan and Jennifer (The Team), Ludlow 1951

FOREWORD

There was a widespread and popular belief, at the start of World War II, that to be a pilot, a man had to be tall, blond, blue eyed, very handsome and required to wear at all times a white silk scarf wound loosely round the neck with one end free to catch the wind. Seriously though, with the rapid expansion of Air Forces at the outbreak of World War II, the attributes for those who opted for flying training were thankfully less idyllic and more relevant to the urgency that existed. This allowed me to get a foot in. All ‘would be’ aviators had to volunteer first, then pass stringent health checks, a maths exam, and have a minimum length of leg. You may well ask! It was to reach the rudder pedals in some aircraft.

Flying training required the pupil to attain proficiency in placing the aircraft in every possible configuration of aerobatic manoeuvre with the utmost accuracy and safety, whilst obeying every air regulation in the book. This included a total ban on low flying, a most dangerous and often fatal practice. As a fully trained pilot, Tom Storey, flying a four-engine Halifax aircraft, was assigned to an RAF squadron engaged in secret Special Duties. This type of operation required him to deliberately ignore the low flying safety regulation, descending to very low altitudes in hilly or mountainous terrain, deep into enemy-held territory. These clandestine operations of between seven and ten hours’ duration, under cover of darkness, required the skills of flying and accurate navigation to determine success or failure.

Tom captained the crew of seven, a lone, independent unit of very young men who had to grow up fast.

Larry Toft

World War II Special Duty Halifax Pilot

INTRODUCTION

This is an account of a young RAF pilot, Tom Storey, during six months of operational flying with 148 Special Duty Squadron in the Mediterranean, the Balkans and Poland during World War II, and an attempt to understand the reasons for his death twenty years later. These aircrews were brave and skilful beyond their years and my admiration for them has grown throughout the progress of this work. This story is personal because Tom Storey was my father, but many families had their lives unravelled by the trauma that war leaves in its wake; it is a story as relevant today as it was seventy years ago.

One of the reasons I wanted to write a story about my father’s time with 148 Squadron was that first, I have acquired quite a lot of information over the years and it seemed wrong just to sit on that and do nothing with it and, secondly, it is a personal journey for me, an attempt to lay some ghosts to rest. My father never talked about his wartime experiences, maybe because of the inherent secrecy of the work, or maybe because he could not bear to recall that time, so I have little first-hand information other than a discussion with Charlie Keen, flight engineer on my father’s crew, and written accounts by other crew members; bomb aimer, Eddie Elkington-Smith and wireless operator, Walter Davis. I met Walter Davis in 2013 and he and his daughter, Anne Black, not only shared photographs and letters with me, but gave me access to his flying logbook, which contained a record of all the flights, more than forty, that he had made with Tom. Paul Lashmar, journalist and documentary maker, generously shared the research material he had gathered about my father’s last flight, and Mike Bedford-Stradling, son of crewmember Patrick Stradling, kindly provided me with material from his father’s archive. It is the personal nature of this story which I hope will convey adequately the magnificence of ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances.

I have tried to present, as accurately as possible, the context in which my father and his crew were operating, and the conditions in which they lived. I believe the truth is in the facts. I have used a combination of Squadron operational records, personal accounts, and information gleaned from an excellent selection of books written on the subject. I hope I do those authors justice in my own account, and, more importantly, honour those profoundly brave young men, who operated in secrecy and, until very recently, with little in the way of recognition or memorials.

THURSDAY23rdAPRIL1964

Iremember running very fast downhill to the telephone box. Running so fast that my heart nearly pounded out of my chest, but I couldn’t slow down, I had to go faster still. I was 16 and had come home from school on the bus with my sister Susan. We dropped our schoolbags on the kitchen floor and ran upstairs to say hello to Dad. He had been in bed for a couple of days – it being the anniversary. The anniversary meant getting very drunk most years, but this year he was out of work and there was no money for drinking. He had found oblivion in a bottle of sleeping tablets and we skipped into the room to find him dead, lying in bed with the covers pulled up and one arm hanging over the side. Lots of shouting, Mum rushing upstairs, an untouched cup of tea on the floor by the bed, “Get an ambulance, quick”. I could barely find breath to get the words out. “Come quickly, I think he’s dead.” The sirens reached the house before I did. Resuscitation failed, doctor serious and resigned, hope falling away and desperation filling the room, he was gone. The coroner decided the balance of his mind had been disturbed, and he was right to think that, but not right to say that he took his own life. He simply couldn’t face that day, the 23rdApril, and needed to blot it out – his inner turmoil reached an unbearable pitch on that day every year.

I can’t say what caused such pain because he didn’t talk about it, and even if he could tell us what he had done during that winter and spring of 1943/44, perhaps the pain was from what he failed to do, or what he felt he should have done, rather than anything he actually did. Maybe the pain was because those events of 1944 were a high point of madness and thrilling adventure, never to be recaptured in the peacetime world of work and family. Did working as a commercial traveller for a soft drinks company suck the remaining life out of the returning hero? Or did he feel he was lucky to have any job, and berated himself for having thrown it all away because of the memories. For twenty years he had been troubled, and we had grown quite used to it. Life in our home always carried on with as much normality as possible thanks to the strength and resourcefulness of Rita, my mother. She didn’t understand either, but loved her husband enough to take up the cup of tea that lay cold at the bedside, when she could have said: “For goodness sake get up and stop feeling sorry for yourself”. Doctor Brown, in his struggle to find comforting words for us said that it was: “Maybe for the best”, and, although he meant well, he was quite wrong. It was not for the best at all. The despair didn’t die with him – we had breathed in too much of it to ever be fully free ourselves. Yet we survived – our little team of Rita, Pat, Jennifer and Susan.

I can never know what lay behind such strong feelings about the 23rdApril, but it was a day that held terrors to be escaped from in any way possible. I would like to understand, but I may just have to tell the story of those months – the winter and spring 1943-44 – and accept that sometimes a person’s experiences are so unique and personal, that not even a loving daughter can unravel the threads.

CHAPTER1ARRIVAL AT TOCRA

F/Sgt Tom Storey 1943

Tom Storey left Bournemouth’s Hurn airport on the 23th October 1943, bound for Tocra on the Cyrenaican coast of Libya, with a fresh, young crew, a modified Handley Page Halifax Bomber and little idea of what he had volunteered for. He had returned from pilot training in Canada to complete the final stage of training for four-engine heavy bombers in the United Kingdom and was expecting to be posted to one of the bomber squadrons, when a briefing officer came looking for two volunteer crews with good navigational skills for overseas work. Tom’s navigator was a commissioned RCAF1officer, who had been an instructor in his native Canada, and Walter Davis, the wireless operator, felt that this made them ideal for the assignment and enthusiastically persuaded Tom, the pilot, to sign them up. Walter always said he coerced Tom into volunteering, but I suspect it was an attractive proposition to them all, particularly as the life-expectancy for bomber crews was four missions. Maybe the ‘unknown’ was more attractive than the ‘known’. They were accepted for the work and went to RAF Lyneham in Wiltshire for further training, to collect their aircraft, and to receive instructions for joining their new Squadron, which was based in North Africa. They still had little idea of what they had volunteered for, but there were clues when, on the 2ndOctober, 1943 they collected their aircraft, a Handley Page, Mark II Halifax (number JN888), which appeared to have some strange modifications. The mid upper turret had been removed; there was no nose armament and a huge hole had been cut into the floor with opening doors. This, they suspected, pointed to supply work, but the briefing officer had told them: “I can say no more”. So they didn’t ask.

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