Popeye’s War

Popeye's war

Ordinary Hero story submitted by Ruth Flower

We were all terribly keen, very proud of our uniforms, and of being one of the team. Just before the end of the RAF disciplinary course we were paraded in full uniform, without wings, before the Commanding Officer. He gave us a pep talk in traditional style, designed to knock back any signs of swelled heads, concluding on a typical note: “Just because you chaps have your uniforms, don’t think you’re anybody – because you’re not. You’re just the lowest form of animal life.”

I often wonder what our CO would have said about low animal life if he had observed my occasional ‘toothabatics’ at parties in the mess. When suitably in the mood I’d show the boys how to rotate false teeth without removing them from my mouth. Once when I did this someone called out “Popeye” – chiefly I think because my jaw jutted out during my performance. Anyway, the name stuck – so much so that one night later on, and unknown to me till I walked out onto the tarmac, an artist among the ground crew painted a very lifelike Popeye character on my aircraft.

I’ve been known as Popeye ever since.”

(My hero’s own words.)

In 1936 at twenty years old, armed with a keen sense of adventure and desire to fly, Fred J Lucas felt England beckoning.

He was my uncle and second cousin, who’d married his first cousin, my aunt, hence the relationship.

The New Zealand government was re-equipping its air force with an anticipated 30 Wellington bombers in July 1939, and it asked New Zealanders serving in the RAF to transfer to the RNZAF in order to ferry the first six Wellingtons out to New Zealand. Popeye was one of the 12  chosen. The date for his departure from the UK was set for October.

But war intervened.

Harwell Operational Training Unit in Berkshire was where the New Zealand Squadron had to familiarise themselves with the Wellingtons. When the bombers had been brought up to operational standard, Popeye made his first run on 13th March 1940, doing a sweep of the North Sea in search of enemy shipping.

By April he was flying as second pilot, doing aerodrome attacks in Norway, and further afield when the Germans pressed on with their invasion of the Netherlands and Belgium. In  May 1940 the Air Ministry officially announced that they were to be known as No 75 NZ Squadron, thus giving them a proper place in the hierarchy. Base was Feltwell in East Anglia.

Starting with an op over Germany proper, on 21st May, bombing the railway marshalling yards at Aachen, they were out bombing night after night, behind the lines.

They started fires and explosions in woods and during troop concentrations right up to the time of Dunkirk, and still bombed on that last night.

“The air force was accused of not giving proper cover to the army at Dunkirk but little did the chaps on the ground know that we were there all right – only there weren’t enough of us.”

In Germany they bombed oil refineries and poison gas factories. Marshalling yards covering 1.5 square miles, the nerve centre of the German railway system often packed with trucks and trains, took terrific punishment. Acting upon Intelligence reports, they bombed the Black Forest to destroy the build-up of arms dumps and stores reported hidden there.

Setting fire to crops was another job inspired by the back-room boys. Phosphorus pills and pieces of cellulose kept soaking in containers of liquid, were tipped down the flare chute over the German wheat belt. On a fine day they ignited when the sun dried them out. Bombs were set for a 30-minute to 72-hour delay. One never knew when these things were about to explode, so while flying back to England, or even when safe in bed, they could still be going off, hampering reclamation efforts by the enemy.

The colossal fires caused by the bombing of fuel plants staggered the imagination, and a direct target hit, left the young pilots feeling utterly naked and exposed. Billowing smoke and flame lit up the area for miles and to a height of  7,000 or 8,000 feet, which was about the limit for Wellingtons then.

At first enemy searchlights were operated by sound locators, and as time went by both sides became more sophisticated in using radar. Then they established a solid 20 mile belt of searchlights. Once the bombers had crossed the German and Dutch coasts master lights picked them up, and others honed in fixing them in a solid cone of light. Popeye and his crew could be sure the enemy’s night fighters would then come in for the kill.

“We knew that being caught in the cone could be and often was fatal.”

During these days everybody was under tension. After long night raids were over and de-briefing concluded, they would drift off to bed, having eaten the usual bacon and two eggs, special fare for those returning from ops. They fell asleep to peace on earth, the sun shining, birds singing, and all the sounds of early morning. The previous hours of darkness receded like some fantastic dream.

“I suppose the relaxation after a few hours’ sleep, particularly if we were not scheduled for another trip that night, acted like a stimulant. It didn’t take much to get us in the mood for a bit of nonsense in the mess. After one such night I found I’d ‘walked the ceiling’, making a path of black footprints across the ante-room ceiling, down a wall, and out through a ventilator. This effort was performed in an atmosphere of great hilarity and enthusiasm. By the time we’d had a few beers the chaps were ready for anything, and whether I was stripped or did it voluntarily, I was soon down to my jockeys, spread-eagled on one of the enormous chesterfields, while someone industriously blackened the soles of my feet with shoe polish.

Not long after, Air Chief Marshall Sir Arthur Tedder visited the station and wrote in the visitors’ book, “These footprints to remain for all time!”, thus putting the seal of official approval on a prank that had been frowned on in some quarters.”

Popeye’s raid over Berlin, capital of the Third Reich, marked his 37th op, and the end of his first tour.

He spent the next six months at Hamstead Norris, a Wellington Operational Training Unit. There he trained pilots for bombers, working night and day, regardless of the constant raids on London not far away.

“I was in gumboots, ankle deep in mud, by an old farm barn which did temporary duty as our office. I had just sent a pupil solo and was watching him coming in to land. Someone said, “What the hell’s that Blenheim doing flying low over there?”

It was a moonlight night, and London was in the middle of an air-raid. Searchlights were criss-crossing the night sky, and everywhere there was an eerie glow from fires and flak.

For a Blenheim he was pretty unfriendly. He laid a stick of bombs right across Picadilly Circus – the intersection of the runways. The bombs skipped off into the grass, and the Ju88, for that’s what it was, disappeared, while my pupil, quite unperturbed, came in to land unaware of the incident and intent only on making a good landing.”

While at Hamstead Norris Popeye was summoned to Buckingham Palace to receive the DFC from King George V1.

Ater completing his second tour of operations, Popeye was posted to a Blind Approach Training School at Swindon, where if the morning was soggy and foggy and visability only half -way across the aerodrome, it was considered perfect flying weather. He commanded No 1519 BAT (Blind Approach Training).

Next was a posting to New Zealand after the fall of Pearl Harbour in 1942, with the threat of further Japanese aggression in the Pacific. On reading an old newspaper he learned that he’d been awarded a bar to his DFC.

At Whenuapai, as Commander of No 1 General Reconnaissance Squadron, it was submarine patrol and fighter affiliation with the Kittyhawk squadron.

“Then one Saturday night I smashed up my car in an unexpected introduction to a stationary tram, and after I was discharged from hospital was sent on leave to recuperate.”

Back at Whenuapai Popeye had to form New Zealand’s first air transport unit, No 40 Squadron. He flew a brand new DC3 ( RAF name: Dakota), the first to arrive in New Zealand.

“Checking out on night-flying had its moments. I had been used to severe blackout conditions in England, with only the use of glim lamps which were not visible until the aircraft was lined up on the runway at about 500 feet. I wasn’t used to the more liberal illumination practised in New Zealand. As I came in to land after the first circuit the Major was quite upset when I did not put on my landing lights, or request Control for the Chance Light. It wasn’t a bad landing, but he said, “The next time, boy, I guess we’ll have some lights!”  So the next time around we called up for the whole works, and the place was lit up like a Christmas tree. Coming in I bounced all over the runway. “Guess you don’t need those lights after all!” he said resignedly.”

There were flights to New Hebrides (Vanuatu) and Guadalcanal, where sometimes Popeye and his crew had to stooge around waiting for an artillery barage and fighting around the airstrip to clear before they could go in to land. Norfolk Island, Fiji, Canton Island, Palmyra, Honolulu,and Funafuti all had regular landings. The longest trip took 100 hours flying in one week. Principal task was to pioneer the best transport routes around the Pacific.

1943 saw Popeye applying to be posted back to England, to be right in the thick of it again. War planes had progressed in skill and sophistication, with his Mosquito being a Mk V1 fighter bomber powered by two 1,635-hp motors. Made of three ply and balsa wood, it was light, strong and manouverable. At this stage of the war a four engined Flying Fortress with a crew of eleven, and carrying up to 4,000 lb of bombs, took over 11 hours on the return trip to Berlin, whereas the Mk V1 Mosquito bomber with the same bomb load, and two crew, could do the same trip in four hours. No wonder pilots were keen to be posted to Mosquito Squadrons.

They hammered away at locating and eliminating enemy targets up until near D Day.

“I finished my 81st operation on 11th July, and on 10th October found myself being flown in a Liberator from Prestwick in Scotland via Goose Bay to Montreal on posting to 45 Group Transport Command. I spent the next four weeks ferrying Lancasters from Canada back to Prestwick.”

A bout of pleurisy meant a hospital stay, and further tests proved that Popeye had picked up a tropical bug during one of his earlier stays in Guadalcanal. More hospital time was followed by his discharge, and the Air Force posting him back to New Zealand. This was March 1945.

So it was back to the tussocks of Southland. Being the son of a farming family, he was soon back into the stride of country life, sheep and cattle, and later raising a family of his own.

After a year the thought of flying again, emerged. There was Aero Club, and some time later Popeye found himself at war again. This time the enemy was rabbits. South Island farms seemed to be swarming with these grass gobbling pests. So Popeye initiated and did the first trial drops of poison carrots onto farms that requested rabbit irradication.

He pioneered aerial topdressing of farms, and transported tourists who wanted a taste of backcountry New Zealand, while farming the land himself.

The years went by; the family of four sons and a daughter grew up.

Popeye and his wife retired to Motueka, living across the road from the Nelson Flying Club, where he encouraged many young people, who like him, had the urge to take to the skies.