Just a Sprog Pilot

An article kindly supplied by Steve Richards

Jim Tilley aged 20
Jim Tilley when aged 20, photographed in Palestine, Christmas 1944. Lesley Tilley

Jim Tilley's log Book

I have in my possession the flying log book of Jim Tilley. In the late 1990s I got to know him quite well and was able to question him about his time flying RAF Dakotas in the months following the end of The Second World War.

 I asked Jim if he could recall any particularly hairy moment to which he replied  in a somewhat serious tone, “I nearly lost one of my crew out of the back door once. We practised dropping heavy, packed, supply containers. This was done from a bit less than 200 feet. No parachutes – just freefall. For this type of mission the cabin had a conveyer installed to get the cargo out as rapidly as we could. These heavy containers would whoosh down the fuselage over a series of steel rollers to be pushed out of the cargo door. One of the lads got hit in the back of the legs by a container and very nearly went out of the door too.” It is almost certain that this incident occurred on 22nd October 1945 when Jim was second pilot in Dakota III KG671 flying out of RAF Welford.

Basic Training - Rhodesian Air Training Group

Aged 19, Jim Tilley did his basic RAF flying training with the Rhodesian Air Training Group at Mt. Hampden with 28 EFTS (Elementary Flying Training School) flying Fleet Cornell IIs. These aircraft, which were built under the Lend-Lease arrangement, carried their Royal Canadian Air Force serial numbers (e.g. 15176 and 15232). His first flight was on 2nd February 1944 and he went solo on the 10th. Gaining his wings in mid-April, Jim’s assessment both as a pilot and a navigator was ‘above average’. He progressed to twin-engined training later that same month, having moved to the airfield at Heany. This was the home of 23 SFTS (Service Flying Training School) and here, in the main, he flew Airspeed Oxford Is (e.g. R6003 and R9974) but on a couple of occasions Avro Anson Is (EG429 and LT608). Mastering the use of two engines and a retractable undercarriage he went solo within six days. 

77 OTU

At the end of October and over 200 flying hours later, he qualified on twin-engined types. Jim was posted to 77 OTU (Operational Training Unit) which was equipped with Vickers Armstrong Wellingtons based at RAF Qastina in Palestine. Jim commenced training with the unit in mid-January 1945. Flying Wellington B.Xs (e.g. LN774 and LP383), he qualified on the type as ‘Proficient’ in early March. The intention was that he would join an operational squadron in Italy. 

The war in Europe draws to a close

The war in Europe was rapidly drawing to a conclusion and the need for transport crews was more pressing than was the need for bomber crews. Progressive events in the field made it necessary to regularly alter policy decisions, and so Jim, now a Flying Officer, found himself back in the UK marking time. He kept his hand in, flying Tiger Moths (e.g. T5682 and T7112) with 11 EFTS at Perth, earning his flight pay as an instructor. Eventually in late September 1945, he joined 1336 Transport Support Conversion Unit (TSCU) at RAF Welford, Berkshire.

Jim Tilley
The Fleet Cornell was used extensively for basic pilot training within the Commonwealth Air Training Scheme. Although RAF Cornells were allocated British serial numbers they frequently displayed their original Royal Canadian Air Force five digit numbers. via David Newnham
Jim Tilley
On a number of occasions trainee pilot Jim Tilley flew Cornell 15235. via Peter Green
Jim Tilley RNZAF Airspeed Oxford
In 1940, twelve Oxfords which were due to be delivered to the Royal New Zealand Air Force were diverted by the Air Ministry to the RAF’s Rhodesian Air Training Group. They arrived for use with 23 SFTS carrying their RNZAF serial numbers as seen here with Oxford NZ125. via David Newnham

Conversion to Dakotas

“There was a need for Dakota crews to provide tactical support – glider towing, dropping parachutists and supply drops”, explained Jim.

What were Jim’s first impressions of the Dakota aircraft?

“It had decent brakes!  On the Wellington we had very inefficient air-brakes. When taxiing, I was always petrified of pranging the thing into other parked aircraft. On the Dakota, the brakes were, I think, hydraulic and they worked a treat.”

Converting from the Wellington to the Dakota took a little short of 19 hours spread across 14 flights. Amongst the Dakotas that Jim was introduced to were KG321 and KG452, both being Mk IIIs.

Night flights over Berkshire

“Up to that time, we had always flown with a parachute, either clipped to our chest or more often, we sat on one. Now in a transport aircraft they weren’t deemed necessary, so we sat on very comfortable seats!  Between the two pilot seats was a Radio Direction Finder with a tuning dial. Flying at night [typically in Dakota III KG650] around Berkshire in autumn 1945, with the blackout now over, we would tune the RDF into the American Forces Network. There we were, cruising around the sky in a relatively comfy American airliner type, listening to the American big bands, absolutely great!”, Jim chuckled at the memory.

RAF Ramsbury was the satellite for Welford and it was from here that Jim learnt the art of glider towing. This involved cross-country flights for up to 1 hour 35 minutes as well as night flights of just 20 minutes. Dakotas flown as tugs included KG407/629/650. Interspersed with this work was paratrooper dropping (over Netheravon) from Dakota C-47A FZ625 and supply drops out of KG650. 

Glider retrieval - The "snatch"

A little known Dakota operation was the retrieval of gliders known to the crews as the ‘snatch’. Jim explained, “We practised this at RAF Ramsbury. There they had two poles about 15 feet high firmly secured, with a cable draped between them and then extended out from the poles to a glider, forming a triangle. For this mission, the Dakota had a hook fitted to the lower fuselage. The idea was to fly across the field at about 20 feet with the hook trailing and snatch at the suspended cable and so scooping up the glider. We would then do a circuit of the field towing the glider before releasing it. The system was used in the Far East for retrieving gliders containing wounded personnel for medical evacuation from rough fields which were unsuitable for Dakota landings. I was always glad to be in the Dak and not in the glider!  We had to watch for the fall off in speed as we made the snatch. There were horror stories of pilots who had lowered their hook and come down low too early, so that when they arrived at the practice field, they’d got an apple tree and two hawthorn bushes in tow!”

Training for the snatch technique

Training for this ‘snatch’ technique was at RAF Ramsbury, Wiltshire. The Glider Pick-up Unit (GPU) moved in its five Dakotas and Hadrian gliders on 29th October and started training work immediately. Jim was flying with them 29th -31st October. The Flight disbanded on 15th November. This specialist unit had been at RAF Ibsley, Hampshire from March until late October 1945 and prior to that at RAF Zeals, Wiltshire from January 1945. 

Jim Tilley Dakota snatch
An RAF Dakota comes in low with its ‘snatch’ hook lowered. via Peter Elliott, RAFM
Jim Tilley Hadrian Glider
A Hadrian glider on the point of being snatched by its Dakota tug. via Peter Elliott, RAFM
Jim Tilley Dakota snatch
The USAAF pioneered the ‘snatch’ technique which it used successfully in the Far East during the Second World War. RAFM
Jim Tilley Dakota
Another view of an RAF Dakota on the point of jerking a glider off the ground. RAFM

Hazardous but effective

This technique was effective but hazardous (the Americans had successfully used it in the Far East). Within six to seven seconds the waiting glider, at the other end of the tow line, would go from stationary to over 100 mph, becoming airborne within seconds. As the slack was taken up, the nose of the glider would go down and the tail rise before leaping into the air. The strain on the glider was great and just as much so for the Dakota. For training, the Waco Hadrian glider was ballasted with concrete blocks to represent an operational loading. 

The glider would have weighed in at around a third of the tow aircraft’s own weight!  The long hook beneath the Dakota was fitted to a torsion bar. This was a spring (not unlike the mainspring in a clockwork device) to help absorb the shock.

Karachi for Christmas

With Jim’s Dakota training over, the RAF had plans for him in the Far East. Departing from Southern England in an Avro York, he eventually arrived in Karachi in time for Christmas, “…from where my stomach has only just recovered…”, Jim grimaced.

The posting was to a VIP transport squadron viz Air Command South East Asia Communications Squadron (ACSEA Comms Sqn)in Singapore and his first flight with this unit was 5th March 1946.

Pilot for the C in Cs and VIPs

“The squadron’s principal purpose was to look after, and fly, the personal aircraft allocated to the British Commanders-in-Chief for the South East Asia theatre – Arthur Tedder of the Air Force, Miles Dempsey of the Army and of course Lord Louis Mountbatten. Mountbatten’s Dakota was named Sister Ann. Actually, he had in addition, a York and a second Dakota named Mercury which was crammed with wireless equipment. This state of the art airborne wireless and cipher kit could transmit/receive Delhi to London, no mean feat in 1946.

Jim Tilley Dakota rear door
“I nearly lost one of my crew out of the back door once …”. Seen here a team of ‘kickers’ getting supplies out of the Dakota’s cargo door. RAFM
Units with which Jim Tilley flew

Miles Dempsey & his aircraft Lilli Marlene

“Of course, I was only a sprog pilot and others on the squadron were real old sweats with thousands of Dakota flying hours in their log books. I did fly as co-pilot for Dempsey on half a dozen occasions. His aircraft was called Lilli Marlene.”

Jim and his crew were kept busy flying lower ranking VIPs all over the South East Asia theatre and one flight from Batavia (now Jakarta) to Changi in Dakota III KG761 stands out in particular.

“We’d flown some passengers down to Java and, for the return trip to Singapore, we were given two passengers – a Wing Commander and a Squadron Leader – keep in mind I was a lowly Flying Officer. About half way back, we came into some filthy weather, thick black stuff such as you don’t see in Europe. We tried to go over it but it was too high. We tried to go under it but it was too close to the sea for us. We just went through it at about 2000 feet. It wasn’t excessively bumpy. When the two passengers got out, they said to me ‘Well done. We always thought it could be done.’  Afterwards I said to my co-pilot, ‘What was all that about?’  He just shrugged. Later in the mess our flight was the talk of the old sweats. ‘Hear about that flight from Java today, it must have been a sprog crew?  They flew through all that muck.’  Evidently, the experienced pilots wouldn’t go near that type of Far Eastern storm cloud and the proper course of action would have been to turn back. They say ignorance is bliss!”

The Beechcraft C-45F Expeditor was a type used by the RAF mainly in the South-East Asia theatre. In June/July Jim had opportunity to fly Expeditor II KJ479.

Jim Tilley Dempsey's Dakota
General Miles Dempsey’s Dakota bore the nose-art Lilli Marlene. RAFM

Spraying DDT

Two entries in Jim’s logbook dated 21st July 1946 are noteworthy. These relate to two short flights (one of 45 minutes duration and the other of 35) from his home base of Changi. Under the ‘Duty’ column in his logbook is printed SPRAY SINGAPORE. Where the aircraft number is normally recorded it simply reads DDT. At this period, RAF Dakotas in the theatre were sometimes used on insecticide spraying duties. The chemical dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane was employed. More commonly known as DDT, this insecticide would later be outlawed in many parts of the world although, due to its effectiveness, it remains in limited use. 

Jim Tilley Dakota DDT
A Dakota sprays DDT over Singapore circa 1946. IWM

The end of his service career

Jim finished his service career in the summer of 1946, his last operational flight as a Dakota captain was 28th July from Penang to Changi flying KG761. Like Jim, this aircraft was also coming to the end of its RAF career. Following overhaul it was transferred to the Royal Indian Air Force and given the serial number VP919.

In 1950, he married Lesley and the honeymoon was to be in Jersey. The couple turned up at Birmingham Airport for the flight – a British European Airways Dakota! James Round Tilley died in July 1999 aged 75 years.

© 2016 Stephen Gordon Richards

Steve Richards is the author of The Luftwaffe over Brum

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