Walter Henry Layne volunteered for duty as Aircrew with the RAF the moment Neville Chamberlain announced a state of war on September 3, 1949. His son David tells his incredible story in this first instalment of a three-part story for MyPast…
“On 9th April 1940, my father Wally was requested to attend a two-day assessment at No.2 Reception Centre, RAF Cardington, Bedfordshire.
“Arriving by train at Bedford, he caught a bus for the three-mile journey to Cardington. After reporting in, he was assigned to a squad and marched off for kit assignment. The kit consisted of five blankets, two sheets, a knife, a fork, a spoon and mug - all carried in a white kit bag. The aircrew candidates were housed in huts consisting of two rows of iron beds with springs and three ‘biscuits’ (thin mattresses.)
“The following morning, Wally underwent a series of medicals and a battery of aptitude tests aimed at establishing his suitability for aircrew in the RAF. He attended an Aircrew Selection Board, which recommended him for training as a wireless operator/air gunner. This course - of approximately eight months duration - was the most time-consuming of all aircrew trades.
“Having sworn his allegiance to King and country, he was formally enlisted for the duration of the war with a rate of pay of 4/- (four shillings) a day during training, rising to 6/6 (six shillings and six pence) when qualified.
“Following a period of time spend at wireless school doing a theory course at RAF Yatesbury, Wally was sent to aerial training. From October 19th 1940 to November 8th 1940 he made four flights in the de Havilland Dominie piloted by civilian employees of the Bristol Aircraft Company. These experienced civilian pilots were over age for R.A.F. service and were part of the Yatesbury Wireless Flight contracted by the Air Ministry.
“The four flights that Wally undertook totalled 3 hours and 30 mins of flight time and were logged as ‘Air Experience.’ During these flights, the student airmen were introduced to radio receiver training. They sent and received messages from base and practiced the art of transmitter tuning by calibration and back tuning to the transmitter. My father qualified as a Wireless Operator on December 4th 1940, with the ability to transmit morse code at 18 words per minute!
“From RAF Yatesbury, my father was assigned to No. 15 Personnel Transit Centre at R.A.F. Ternhill. Here he waited for 10 days, doing a lot of early morning PT, followed by lectures on unmentionable medical problems, and how to avoid capture in the case of being shot down. All of these activities were just time fillers before the commencement of the next Air Gunners course at R.A.F. Penrhos.
“On Christmas Eve 1940, my father Walter Henry Layne (Wally) travelled by train and bus to Caernarvon, Afonwen and finally arrived in Pwllheli.
“Reporting to the Orderly Room, he found the base under a high state of security due to Luftwaffe attacks in July and October of 1940. These attacks had caused serious damage and some fatalities. Fortunately for the airmen stationed there, Penrhos suffered no further attacks throughout the war.
“Located on the coast of Wales RAF Penrhos had a circular grass airfield with no designated runways, this provided the aircraft with an approximate take-off and landing run of 2,500 feet. There was just one hanger for servicing aircraft and a collection of wooden huts that served as accommodation and classrooms for the students.
“Bordering the airfield to the southwest was a line of hills 1,200 feet from the perimeter of the airfield and rising to a height of 100 feet. To the south of the airfield, the terrain dropped some 20 feet. These two topographical features presented a permanent hazard to arriving and departing aircraft.
“Divided into squads of six the training of Air Gunners at 9 Bombing and Gunnery School consisted of a six-week course. Flying kit was issued along with a white flash to put in the airman’s cap that denoted he was a trainee. At this time, the student airmen were promoted to Leading Aircraftsman (LAC) and were awarded a badge of a propeller to wear on their uniform sleeve.
“In addition to their Gunnery training, the students were also expected to carry out other duties to include airfield guard duty. “Make Work” details like cleaning coal and fire buckets were endured as well as physical training and military drill.
“Before the trainee Gunners fired their first shot a great deal of groundwork had to be undertaken. The trainees received extensive classroom training in aircraft recognition, map reading, mathematics and basic navigation. In addition, lectures were given on R.A.F. Law and Administration. Included in the curriculum were Air Gunner training films.
“The students had to be familiar with pyrotechnics and all of the types of armament used with a variety of different weapons systems. Training huts containing Boulton Paul and Fraser Nash turrets were utilised. A spot of light was thrown on a curved wall at which the gunner would aim. Films of various types of attacking aircraft were used with engine noise and gunfire from loudspeakers being utilized to make the exercise as realistic as possible.
“The trainee gunners were also expected to have knowledge of how to sight those weapons systems. Hours of blackboard demonstrations were given on how to quarter the sky in search of enemy aircraft. Demonstrations were given on the “curve of pursuit” or lead and “bullet drop” that must be calculated by the Gunner when aiming at an enemy aircraft. Exercises using hand-held reflector sights enabled the student to judge the speed of a target aircraft.
“Other lessons including learning how to estimate the range and identity of a sighted aircraft. This was done by projecting an image of an enemy aircraft onto an aerial background. Then by varying the size of the image, it would be made to correspond to that of a real machine at a given distance. Training they undertook consisted of: Weapons training, turret training, live firing training, Whitley training and Fairey battle training.
“By honing the skills they had learned in their Initial Training Wings the airmen were taught how to work together as a crew and familiarise themselves with the type of aircraft they would be flying operationally as compared with the aircraft they had flown previously, they were large and complicated.
“There were instructional sections on the station for each crew member: navigation, bombing, signals, and gunnery. The students were in ground school one-half of the day and the other half they flew. The instructors at an OTU were mainly officers and airmen who had previously completed a tour of wartime flying. Flying in Anson’s or Hampden’s a W/Op and a Navigator did three-hour cross countries, the W/OP supplying the Navigator with loop bearings and then the odd WT fix to help him in his navigation. Then they gravitated to night cross countries and practiced formation flying, cross-country, and high-level bombing.
“On June 20th, 1941 Wally completed his OTU course and in the process added an additional 99 hours to his logbook giving him a total of 118 hours of flight time. The RAF granted him 10 days’ leave and issued him orders to join an operational squadron…”
Read MyPast next Friday for part 2 of Wally Layne’s incredible war story…
Credit and thanks go to David Layne