It was so often the case that the pilots of Fighter Command were the ones who received all the glory during the Second World War and that the role of the support teams was somewhat overlooked. This has possibly been the fault of the media, always looking for dramatic tales to relate, for it was never the case amongst the pilots themselves who were only too well aware how much they depended upon the ground crews for their very survival.
It is refreshing, therefore, to read a memoir from one of those “erks” – this being the RAF slang for a member of ground crew, which is said to originate from the Cockney pronunciation of Aircraftman. The erk in question is Joe Roddis, who kept the Spitfires of firstly 234 Squadron and then 485 Squadron in the air. The book covers his early days, training at RAF St Athan in Wales through to his first introduction to the Spitfire with 234 Squadron.
Moved to Middle Wallop in August 1940 at the height of the Battle of Britain, Joe Roddis describes how the Spitfires were quickly turned round in case they were soon needed back up in the air. “When they [the aircraft] arrived we each received our own aircraft as it taxied in. The fitters and riggers stood waving their arms to guide in their pilots to where they would park, ready to be worked on. Before the pilot was out of his cockpit, the bowser would arrive and the fitter there ready to fill up the fuel tanks. All trades were now swarming over the aircraft like a lot of ants, putting to use all the skills they had learned and practised for hours on end.
“The aircraft were ready, fuel, oil, air, glycol, oxygen and ammo all replenished. After flight inspections completed by all trades each Spitfire now stood, starter battery plugged in with chocks in, ropes outwards. These were stretched out ready for a quick removal when we were scrambled.”
The days were long and hard during that summer of 1940. The ground crews would have to make sure that by dawn – usually around 02.45 hours – the aircraft were available for whatever state of readiness the squadron was told to be in. The last flight of the day could be landing as late as 22.00 hours.
The true war spirit seemed to prevail at that time and as Joe Roddis proudly boasts, “There was no complaining, moaning or groaning. Everybody wanted our squadron to be the best. No days off, scroungers were not tolerated and our main aim was to keep the aircraft serviceable.”
Life at Middle Wallop at this time was not just hectic; it was also dangerous, with repeated raids by the Luftwaffe. Joe Roddis relates one particular incident when he was driving a tractor with a fuel tanker on tow. He drove off to fill up the tanker just as the aerodrome came under attack. Roddis filled up the tanker and started his return journey to dispersal. “A Heinkel 111, flying very low released its bombs and they appeared to be heading my way! I threw the tractor in to neutral; leapt off and set off as fast as I could go towards the airfield boundary hedge. I just ran and ran until completely out of breath, then sank down, hands over my head and buried my face in the grass. I heard explosions in the main camp and looked up to see where the aircraft were, but not one in sight!” Roddis ran back to the tractor and safely delivered the fuel to the waiting Spitfires.
In Support of the Few is full of such anecdotes, covering airfields such as Biggin Hill, Goodwood, Selsey, Funtington and Merston, and is packed with images. It deserves to do well.
Review courtesy of Britain At War Magazine.
Published by Yellowman and priced at £12.00, copies of In Support of the Few are available from the Aviation Bookshop, Kim’s Bookshop, or outlets such as Goodwood Flying School and Tangmere Aviation Museum shop. All proceeds from the sale of the book will go to charity, being split between helping keep Spitfire ML407 flying and the Apuldram Centre for adults with learning difficulties, the charity selected by Joe Roddis.