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  • Life for my grandfather in the Fleet Air Arm during WW2

    My grandfather, Leslie Arthur Howlett, was born in 1925. After the Second World War broke out he wanted to join the RAF to fly planes. When he was about 16 he tried to sign up, lying about his age. They found out the truth and was rejected. It is likely they were easily able to confirm his age as he was in the local Air Cadets!

    Instead of waiting until he was 18 he joined the Royal Navy as they took recruits slightly earlier than the RAF. He opted to serve with the Fleet Air Arm so that he could reach his goal of being in the air.

    He arrived at HMS Royal Arthur for his basic training. This was a shore establishment near Skegness which used to be a Butlins holiday camp. After five weeks he moved to HMS St Vincent a shore establishment in Gosport where he attended Telegraphist Air Gunner (TAG) School. A TAG provided communications by Morse code and manned the rear gun. After almost two months here Les moved on to Air Gunner School at HMS Kestrel, a shore establishment at Worthy Down near Winchester. This involved another 3 months of training here before going on to HMS Daedalus. This was a shore airfield for the Fleet Air Arm. Based in Lee on the Solent in Hampshire, 4 miles from Portsmouth. Whilst stationed here a bomb dropped on the living accommodation but Les escaped unscathed. His rating at this point was a Naval Airman 2nd Class. After just one month his rating changed to Air Mechanic 2nd Class. Thanks to Les’s daughter this change in role within the Navy could be explained. Les had started off, as he had longed for, in planes. However it was soon discovered after moving to the training airfield that he suffered from acute air sickness. It became so bad he was hospitalised where they discovered he had stomach problems which would stay with him for the rest of his life. This was the end of his flying career.

    The Navy started to re-train him which explained the change to Air Mechanic. After one month’s training at HMS Daedalus he moved to HMS Gosling in Camp 1. This was used for new recruits after initial training. This was near Warrington. The area where Camp1 was is now a housing estate. This particular camp was for training Air Mechanics and other similar roles. The stay here was just a few days before going on to Camp 4 in HMS Gosling. This stint lasted a fortnight. The next entry in his service papers is for HMS Sealand for three days but I do not know where this referred to. Les returned to Camp 4 though until January 1944. RAF Hednesford was his next base in Staffordshire. This was another school of technical training and he was here for 5 months.

    The family story is that Les and another friend signed up for every training course going so maybe this explains the amount of moves to various training camps!

    He must have impressed at some point though as the Navy wanted him to be an officer. However, although Les had passed the 11-plus his family had not been able to afford to send him to grammar school and this held him back from being able to move up the ranks. He was very good at drill however and was often chosen to lead this.

    Les was posted to HMS Sanderling in May 1944, this was an airfield near Glasgow that was transferred to Royal Navy control in 1943 – it is now Glasgow airport. This particular airfield operated as a Royal Navy maintenance yard where aircraft could come for repair. Whilst posted in Glasgow Les was promoted to Air Mechanic 1st Class. The accompanying photograph to this blog was taken in Paisley whilst he was stationed in Glasgow. He was to remain at this airfield until the end of the war in August 1945. It was during this time that he suffered severe frostbite which left scarring on his face.

    Before returning to his civilian life Les was sent to HMS Corncrake for 2 months, this was Ballyhalbert airfield in North Ireland. His last posting was HMS Peewit in Angus which had been used to train pilots during the war. He stayed here for some time being finally released on the 13th of June 1946. HMS Peewit closed a month after Les left.

    Les had served the whole of his war within UK shore bases. Perhaps his air-sickness saved his life. Certainly being an air gunner would have been a much more dangerous role.

    6 Comments

    • 1. Feb 5 2014 12:19AM by Larry Vipond

      Although I did not know Les, I was stationed at RAF Hednesford for 5 months training as an aircraft engine mechanic. I was part of a small group of Royal Canadian Navy personnel sent over from Canada for training for Canada's new naval air arm. I was at Hednesford from late January 1946 until June 1946.

    • 2. Mar 20 2014 9:54PM by susan homewood

      My father was in the Fleet Air Arm and was an aircraft mechanic during WW2. He was based at Worthy Down, he was from Winchester and then served all over India including Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) . His name was Frank Dummer.

    • 3. Jun 2 2014 11:46AM by Peter Johns

      Lovely to see recollections of Hednesford as a Fleet Air Arm engiine mechnics tfainig camp.

      I was there training on the Merlin ,and American Radial engines in May 1945, on VE Day, when a bonfire was made of lots of wooden chairs.We were being trained for the Pacific War , which we did not have to go to.

      A few of us had motor bikes and managed scrounge some petrol from a local bus operator to get home at week-ends. I was posted to Evanton on the Ross and Cromaty firth in Scotland but only there for a few weeks before moving to HMS Dipper at Henstridge, then when that shut down all went to Hms Heron at Yeovilton, and demobed in Feb 1947, still go and stand in Hangar where I used to work to see museum exhibits, hope some one else sees this and was there to gets in touch.

    • 4. Oct 14 2014 4:35PM by Judith Benson

      I have just received information on my fathers service history with the Fleet Air Arm. He was an air mechanic from 1945 - 1947. He served on HMS Royal Arthur (May 1945) HMS Gosling (1945) RAF Hednesford 1945-1946, 762 Squadron Jan - June 1946, HMS Ariel June 1946 - September 1947.

      He was called John Denis Atkinson and became known as Ginger. He was from Withernsea, Yorkshire.

      Would love to hear from anyone who may have known him or served with him.

    • 5. Mar 5 2015 6:48AM by Janine Jones

      My father, Stanley Hodges, was based at HMS Sanderling for part of his national service. He was an Air Frame Mechanic. He was a member of the choir. He shared many memories with me.

      Saddly dad passed away on Thursday 26th February 2015. He sang songs to myself and my brother all of the time and I have just found the sheet music the choir used and all the songs he sang to us were there.

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