The Life Story of Charles James Daborn MBE DFM
My life began at 00.30 hours on 7 June 1921 (or did it?). My father subscribed to a mutual or friendly society which paid out benefits for various things, including a bonus if a child was born within two years of marriage. My parents had been married in the manse of Dalserf Church on 6 June 1919, so they were one day out – until one of my uncles worked out that British Summer Time had come into force, so the time of birth was actually 11.30 p.m. on 6 June! Apparently it worked, but when I later claimed two birthdays each year, I was given short shrift. I was born in a flat at 4 Barrack Street in Hamilton occupied by my father’s parents — my grandfather being a retired quarter master sergeant from the Cameronians or Scottish Rifles.
He was also called Charles James as was his father, who apparently sent a telegram welcoming the arrival of Charles the Fourth! Both unfortunately died when I was only two or three years only, so I have no direct memory of them. I was told that my grandfather used to take me on his shoulders to the Public Park to listen to the bands playing in the bandstand there — did this create my liking for serious music? I like to think so. Grandfather had been a military bandsman (and tailor) and also played the French horn in local orchestras. I have absolutely no memory of my paternal grandmother who died early from the dreaded tuberculosis just after I was born. She was born in military barracks at an army prison, whereas my grandfather had been born in military barracks in Edinburgh Castle. My father in turn had been born in military barracks in Aldershot, so I have a very mixed nationality problem – I’m Scottish despite the name!
My mother was entirely Scottish, although some people have suggested her surname has Northern Irish origins, but I can find no trace of such connections. The family background was in West Lothian, with the menfolk all being involved in agriculture. She herself was born in Slamannan, but her parents moved in about 1900 to Lanarkshire (presumably because of better money in working in the coalfields) and they settled in the miners’ rows at Swinhill, just South of Larkhall. John and Jane Shields went on to have NINE more children in a two-roomed terraced house with a scullery and a single cold water tap — no toilet or bathroom — a “midden” outside served the needs of about ten families. I can still recall the smell when the council men came to empty the contents into their horse-drawn cart.
After my mother there were eight further daughters (of whom seven lived to maturity and marriage) and finally a son, John Shields. Surprisingly all the eight daughters produced offspring (giving me a whole raft of first cousins) but the son was childless. It was customary then to farm out girls when they left school to go into “service” — my mother to the local doctor’s and the others in turn to “big houses” ranging from Paisley to Falkirk and Bothwell, This obviously left space for the younger children, but I can recall some hectic Sundays when there were get-togethers.
My parents apparently met up by chance, when both grandfathers got together to discuss some Masonic business, and Grandpa Shields brought his daughter with him to Hamilton. This must have been during the latter stages of the First World War, since I have a photograph of my father in his Cameronian uniform sent to my mother expressing his love. I know he left the Army after the War, having joined as a boy of 14, and got a job as a locomotive cleaner with the Caledonian Railway Company. This was the first stage of progress to becoming an engine driver, but years followed as a cleaner, then a fireman, before being trusted with a steam engine. They were married as I mentioned earlier in 1919, then moved to Stewart Street in Burnbank where my brother John (Jack) was born in 1923, with Duncan following in 1930. Again our accommodation was quite basic — a two room flat with a scullery and a cold water tap and a coal-fired range, plus a lavatory in the staircase shared by three families (queuing sometimes necessary). One advantage was that Glenlee Public School was exactly opposite our house, and we all attended there until the age of 13. I must have been quite brainy then, because I left in 1934 with (a) the boy’s dux medal for the year, (b) a free place to the prestigious fee-paying Hamilton Academy, and (c) a bursary from the Burns Society to cover the cost of books for the next three years, the latter because I wrote an essay on the life and times of Robert Burns. What a swot I must have been then — but as usual it didn’t last and I left the Academy as a pretty average scholar. But this was 1939 — and the great uncertainty had begun. Further education was now out of the question, apart from the obvious fact that my father couldn’t afford university fees. So — I left school, got a job with the City of Glasgow Approved Society at the fantastic wage of 17/6p per week. This still covered my train fare from Glasgow to Burnbank, and a filled roll and glass of milk at lunchtime, and a meagre contribution to my mother (which as all good mothers do) gave it back to me during the week.
Having no bathing or showering facilities at home, we were used as a family of 4 males, to walk on a Sunday morning to the public baths in Almada Street in Hamilton where they had lumps of carbolic soap and plenty of steaming hot water together with a large tub that working men could lie in and be scrubbed clean by their children and a shower to wash the soap off, followed by a dive into the chlorinated water of the swimming pool where the local chimney sweep Geordie Smith, whose back we had scrubbed, taught us boys how to swim. The said Geordie had a motorcycle with a sidecar which carried his brushes and sacks, but he always stopped at the bottom of the brae between Hamilton and Burnbank which was still cobbled to give horses a grip. Geordie then searched for nuts and bolts and anything which might have been shaken off, to add to his collection. We were walking back from our Sunday “Dookers” Club on the morning of 3”’ September 1939, when Joe the Pole (who was in fact a Lithuanian immigrant) came out of his bicycle shop to inform us that War had been declared. And so started another change in my life.
My father’s immediate reaction was to say “Right – I’ll be taking you along to Hamilton Barracks to sign up for the Cameronians Regiment”. His intention was obviously to keep up the family tradition, insofar as he himself had bee in that regiment , as had been his father and grandfather. Indeed my grandfather, when he was discharged from the Army, was employed as a recruiting sergeant, standing at the gates of the Barracks and inviting likely young me to “take the King’s shiIIing”. The fees he received kept him going at the public house across the road, a practice which brought on his fairly early death in 1925. He was also a relic of the days of the Raj in India and had curry for dinner every day! I was told that in India he used to teach pet parrots belonging to colleagues by suspending them on a rope down a well shaft, and talking to them until they could repeat his words. Whether they were swear words or Hindi commands I do not know. I had no intention of joining the Army, favouring the Royal Air Force. When I was young I used to make model aircraft from Meccano bits and pieces, and I had an unforgettable day in about 1936 when I walked miles to Dungavel Castle to see Sir Alan Cobham;s Flying Circus with his stunt pilots and variety of machines. Needless to say I couldn’t afford the five shilling fee for a “flip in the air”.
Within weeks of the outbreak of war, one of my colleagues in the office , who must have been a reservist, came back in his uniform, and his enthusiasm for the RAF rubbed off on me — so off I went to the Recruiting Office in Glasgow despite my father’s antagonism — only to be told to go home as the professionals would have the war over in a few months! Several months later the position had changed with Hitler now in control of a lot of Europe — so back I went — to be accepted this time as a trainee ground wireless operator. I had no crazy ambitions about being a flying type, wearing glasses all the time and not being very robust. So, in mid-1940 I was given a travel warrant and told to get on to a train from Glasgow Central to Warrington in Lancashire, where I climbed into a big truck along with some other Scots lads and taken to RAF Padgate where we were given huge platefuls of baked beans on toast accompanied by large mugs of strong sweet tea. I don’t recall anything else about that place, although I assume we were kitted out with uniforms and boots, a set of “irons” (knife, fork and spoon) and a “housewife” (comprising needles, thread and wool) for DIY repairs —- no mothers now! And that started my career of over 7 years in the Royal Air Force.
Next stop was Blackpool where we were billeted in a boarding house run by two dear old Salvation Army ladies. We marched up and down the streets of the town, learning “square-bashing” and how to kill a German with a bayonet! The more practical training in wireless telegraphy took place in the old tram sheds in South Blackpool and this entailed marching in columns all along the promenade in all weathers, with one man at the front carrying a white lantern and another at the rear with a red lantern, to avoid being hit by trams in the blackout. From there to Yatesbury in Wiltshire — a bleak, miserable place, sleeping in wooden huts, with a coke-burning stove in the middle and a linoleum floor covering which had to be polished like mad every day. We were also badly bullied by sadistic corporals and sergeants. I hadn’t been there long when a call came out for volunteers for aircrew duties and I was quite interested, although expected to be turned down on medical grounds (my glasses again). A wee Scottish doctor examined me, then took my glasses, held them up to the light and said “Well, laddie, you can just fold these up and put them away for the duration. You’re fit enough for aircrew”. And he was right — I didn’t wear glasses again until about 1960!
The training now changed, and within days I went on my first flight. This was in a wood and canvas biplane , a De Havilland Dominie with two small engines, a civilian pilot complete with bowler hat and rolled umbrella, no separate cockpit, five canvas seats for pupils and one obsolescent wireless set – and one necessary item of equipment, a black tin box for us to sick into. And we were sick flying in this outdated contraption over the Downs. After a few more flights those who were still airsick were taken off the course, but I survived and went on to do more exercises in a small single-engined plane called a Percival Proctor. Just a pilot and me – cosy, except that the pilots were refugees from the Polish Air Force and were bored stiff because the RAF wouldn’t let them fly on operations (knowing they would be murdered by the Germans if captured. On one occasion, I finished my work and turned round to tap him on the shoulder to go for a landing, only to be quite scared — he was flying along and reading a book at the same time!
We were issued with rather old-fashioned flying suits, boots and helmet and expected to go straight to gunnery school. There was a kind of lull, however (early 1941) and we were sent off in all directions to do odd jobs meantime. Jimmy Porteous and I went to RAF Andover where they were still flying Bristol Blenheims, and our job was repairing telephone lines broken in the frequent German air raids at that time. We spent as many nights in air raid shelters as we did in bed. I remember Jimmy tripping over something on our way to our workshop one morning , and being somewhat shaken to find it was the fin of an unexploded bomb!
Next posting was to RAF Stormy Down near Porthcawl in South Wales, where we were taught to be air gunners. What a primitive place this was – we slept in bell tents, and the most regular food was stuffed sheeps’ hearts. Never tried that since! Here we flew in really old Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bombers taking turns to fire World War 1 machine guns at drogues pulled along by other aircraft which had long cables in case they got hit by mistake. I even sank below the belly of a Whitley a “dustbin” turret — the most frightening ever!. Now qualified as a “sound” air gunner, it was off to the final stage of learning — the Operational Training Unit at RAF Abingdon in Oxfordshire. Really intensive work followed, learning to be
part of a crew involving pilots, navigators and ground maintenance staff. We did cross-country flights by day and night, watched over by experienced “screen” aircrews, and it was with great relief that we were accepted as fully trained and ready to be posted to an operational squadron, keen to get there and quite unworried about the future risks.
I was allocated to no. 77 Bomber Squadron in no. 4 Group, based at Leeming in North Yorkshire and still flying the old Whitleys. There were no runways, being a plain grass field, so the pilots just looked at the windsock and took off in that general direction. In the dark some men went out and laid two parallel rows of “gooseneck” paraffin flares. There was no formal crewing—up then and you didn’t know who you were flying with until briefing for each operation. I did four operations from there, two to Paris to drop leaflets, one to Genoa in Italy (this had to be aborted when the plane couldn’t climb high enough to clear the Alps) and lastly the Combined Operations Raid on the locks at St. Nazaire. Because of thick cloud we could not drop our bombs and had to perform our secondary task, i.e. fly round and round over the port in order to draw fire from the German flak guns to prevent them from being depressed and used against the Commandoes and others on the ground. What a display of pyrotechnics lighting up the underside of the clouds.
Shortly afterwards, we were moved to RAF Chivenor in North Devon, where our aircraft were painted with white and pale blue camouflage, and we practised low level bombing before being sent out on very long flights down the Bay of Biscay, searching for German U-Boats either leaving or returning to their pens on the French coast. Other crews saw them, some even attacking and sinking them, but we spotted nothing except the odd oil slick, and some French fishing boats. Some of these were suspected of escorting the submarines at night, and they were all ordered to leave the Bay. At the end of the warning period, we had orders to shoot through their sails to scare them off. I was in the rear turret on the day it was our turn, and I had to let off a few seconds of fire from 4 machine guns — the only time I ever fired “in anger” as it seemed at the time.
Because of the duration of these patrols we were double crewed — two pilots, two wireless operators and two gunners, but one day a different operation was ordered, namely a direct flight to the French coast to bomb an oil tanker. The Squadron Commander decided to reduce the crews involved, and I was removed from Alex Cassie’s team, much to my disgust. Off they went, failed to find the tanker, but came across a U-Boat on the surface. Alex went in to attack, but the sub stayed on the surface, and shot up the plane so badly that the plane had to be put down on the sea near a fishing boat. The crew became prisoners of war for the next 3 years. Indeed Alex ended up in Stalag Luft 3, where he became one of the document forgers in readiness for the Great Escape. He appeared in the TV series about the event, and admitted he did not want to join the escapers because of claustrophobia! He was lucky – his three room-mates were among the 50 officers murdered by the Gestapo on Hitler’s orders. Their war had ended, but I just joined another crew and finished a few more “trips” before we were all posted back to Yorkshire.
Our beloved Whitleys were taken away, and we started to convert to the Handley Page Halifax — not exactly modern, but with 4 Merlin engines and more speed. Our base was a newly-constructed airfield at Elvington near York (now the home of the Yorkshire Air Museum and our Squadron Association). Everything was raw and damp, with days on end of the infamous Vale of York mist. We were soon off on operations starting with night bombing of the submarine pens at Lorient and Brest, then over the Third Reich. The Ruhr was often our target, and could be very scary – but one night we went off to Berlin as part of a massive raid. I can still see the sight of that burning city, and hear the sound of exploding flak outside my little window.
On another night we were sent to bomb the Skoda car factory at Plzen in Czechoslovakia. We got lost on the way and ended up as last in, which I meant that on the way back we had the flak batteries all to ourselves! l May 1943 saw the end of my tour, little realising what was yet to be. I went home on leave, only to read in the I newspaper that I had been awarded a Distinguished Flying Medal along with my pilot and a rear gunner friend. I cannot remember when the investiture at Buckingham Palace took place, but I clearly recall the change in my father – he was actually proud of me.
Next, I was recalled, and sent to become an instructor at RAF Abingdon near Oxford. It wasn’t a very happy time after the camaraderie of squadron life, and I got into a few scrapes along with two buddies in the same boat as me – one Canadian and the other Australian, and we spent a lot of our time on bikes touring the area in search of remote pubs. We were disciplined occasionally – in my case made to sit in the rear turret of a Whitley while a trainee pilot practised “circuits and bumps” i.e. take-offs and landings without stop!
Escape came early in 1944, when I was interviewed regarding a transfer to another training unit- or possibly volunteering for a return to operations. They were looking for experienced men, so I jumped at it. Off I went to another newly built base at North Creake in Norfolk to join a young but inexperienced crew in 199 Bomber Support Squadron learning to fly Short Stirling bombers, yet another type of obsolescent aircraft. Now I ceased to be a Wireless Operator or an Air Gunner ( the crew covering these duties) and was classified as a Special Operator (sounds like a James Bond title). In a way, it was an unorthodox position, in that I was not part of the 7-strong crew, but was a kind of passenger to be taken up by them to do duties in which they had no part. Having said that, we got on very well together in some very rough trips. The training ended on the day before D-Day, when the whole squadron took off and lined up along the English Channel and the Special Operators switched on their oscilloscopes, searching for traces of German radar stations in France. Once identified, we tuned in jamming machines on their frequencies in order to provide cover for the ships, parachutists and gliders employed in the invasion. We learned later that the Americans in particular were greatly pleased that we were responsible for a great reduction in their expected losses that night. Mind you, we were also castigated by the Royal Navy for apparently jamming most of their ship-borne radar equipment.
I went on to do 33 more of these jamming missions, mainly protecting the main bombing force at night by so confusing the Germans that they did not know where the main force was coming in – or even if there was a main force at all that night. I also did a further 13 operations of a different sort, involving a lot of manual labour in freezing conditions — still jamming the German radar system, but in another way.
These missions involved only a few aircraft loaded up with hundreds of bundles of aluminium foil strips wrapped in paper with a string lanyard, known as Window (not to be confused with Microsoft!). Once airborne I had to move all this lot along the fuselage to correct the centre of gravity – hard work .The planes had to fly on very accurate heights and speeds, and at a given signal the Special Operator had to pick up these bundles, rip the string and paper, and push the foil down a small chute between his legs, at the same time counting to himself so that each bundle went at four second intervals. The theory was that, if done accurately, these few aircraft would now appear on German radar screens as several hundred, and delude the ground forces that a large bombing raid was on the way, sound the sirens, scramble the Luftwaffe and alert the flak gunners. Meantime the main RAF bomber stream was approaching somewhere else, or was not even flying that night. Once we reached a certain point our activities ceased, and we turned round and retreated at great speed. I often wondered if the spoof really worked, or whether I toiled like a navvy in vain.
It all ended on completion of my third operational tour in March 1945 — 84 assorted missions in all over a spell of 3 years. I appreciate how lucky I was, looking at the statistics of the number of aircrew killed (I believe the average “life” was 25 trips) and the risks were not all because of the dreaded flak or night fighters. Accidents arose from the age of the aircraft, the poor weather forecasting particularly regarding fog, primitive navigation equipment, the blackout and mid-air collisions. I was now eligible for ground staff duties, and I was told that 3 tours qualified me for whatever job I chose. I quickly opted for air traffic control and went off to Air Ministry in London, only to be told they had something else in mind — helping with the demobilisation of those now eligible for release. I had to thank them on behalf of the RAF and give them advice as to settling into Civvy Street, particularly about getting their old jobs back. I went first to an old pre—war base at Uxbridge where elderly officers were being released, and you can imagine how I was laughed at when I offered “advice”. I have a wonderful memory of Uxbridge. My senior officer was “Pop” Makin, a real old stager with a chestful of queer medals from the First World War and even the Russian Revolution in which, as he told me, he dropped bombs by hand on to enemy ships! One day, he ordered me to accompany him up to Town, and into the Royal Aero Club in Piccadilly. At the bar, I met the world famous aviator from the early aviation days — Jim Mollison, who married the equally famous Amy Johnson. I played snooker with the Master of the King’s Flight and ate pigeon for dinner washed down with Algerian wine.
The RAF then saw sense, and posted me to do the same duties dealing with “other ranks” at RAF Kirkham (now an open prison). The site also contained a substantial RAF hospital caring for servicemen afflicted by the dread disease of tuberculosis, for which new drugs were just coming into use. There were quite a few Sisters there from the Princess Mary’s Royal Air Force Nursing Service, including a certain Sister A L G Robertson, who will feature largely from now on. I shared a room at Kirkham with a young doctor from Glasgow whose father and uncle were eminent ENT consultants at the Western Infirmary and elsewhere. At that time, the male patients were given a bottle of Guinness every day, and I would call on Hamish sometimes, put on a white coat and visit a ward, where we would collect a couple of bottles from patients who didn’t like the stuff and return to his office to drink their health.
A recollection from that time — one day Hamish and I went to the Opera House in Blackpool where the famous tenor Benjamino Gigli was giving one of his farewell recitals. I was disappointed when this little fat man walked on to the stage, but what a voice. We also had a most fantastic Christmas Dinner at the house of the manager of the Blackpool Co-op – being Scots we were the only officers on duty while all our English colleagues had gone home. Considering that food rationing was still strictly in force, the meal was out of this world.
My friendship with Sister “Robbie” was interrupted, when they sent her off to Germany to run a maternity unit set up to look after the wives of RAF personnel. Then, amazingly they decided to post me to the RAF base at Buckeburg which happened to be only about 7 miles from Robbie’s hospital! Did somebody fix this? I never found out – but I certainly enjoyed it. We had some marvellous times there, despite me having sometimes to cover up my uniform occasionally when going through communities which had obviously been bombed during the war. We had an officers’ club (in the local castle of course) and I now know why the British Raj was so disliked by the locals. We were eating the best of food while the local children were starving. I recall our German mess steward, a gentle elderly man of great manners who was fired for stealing some soup for his family. He was smuggling it out in the frame of his bicycle!
My work took me to other units, comfortably located in ex-Luftwaffe messes in one of which we were entertained by a group of musicians in a gallery playing Mozart. Their reward was a cigarette each – standard currency then. I scrounged a lift from one of these bases, flying in a tiny two-seater Auster. I offered to map read, but the pilot said “Don’t have a map — I just follow the railway line”. All good things come to an end and, despite 18 months deferment the RAF said “enough” and I flew back to Abingdon then by train to Kirkham again. Robbie was also on the plane going on leave, and spent part of the journey repairing my tunic sleeve which had been torn in a final game of Mess rugby, using a soda siphon as a ball!
A brief return to Kirkham to listen to the information I had given to all those others, receive my civvy suit complete with waistcoat and natty felt hat and, most importantly a gratuity paid into the bank. Incidentally, did anyone know that, as commissioned officers risking our lives every other night, income tax was deducted from our pay? I got the tax back many years later as “post-war credits”. After a very indecisive period – “What do I do now? Where am I going?” it was suggested by a friend that I go down to the Employment Exchange to be sure of some money, so I went – and was immediately given a job as an enumerator going round the houses asking various questions dreamt up by the Scottish Office as part of a Town Planning Survey of Hamilton. My “coIleagues” were in the main dedicated dole-scroungers so it was easy for me to outshine them and I was talked into staying on as a temporary civil servant in order to categorise and analyze the collected data. Back to working in Glasgow, in a dreary old building, and sharing the lift every day with even more scroungers – people on sickness benefit coming in to face an examining doctor and putting on some wonderful acts to ensure they stay