Ben was born in Old Street, City Road, London on September 21, 1923, son of Barnet and Katie nee Lewis, east European Jewish immigrants from Poland and Minsk respectively, who ran a small Ladies clothes factory along Tottenham High Road, called BeeBee Juveniles, not far from White Hart Lane. His family had moved to 15, Mafeking Road in Tottenham when he was very small and so Ben attended Coleraine Primary School, Down Lane Junior Central School and Tottenham Grammar. He had also been in the local JLB and the Jewish Scout troop, led by one Lionel Nathanson. Forced to leave school for financial reasons at 14 years, he became an apprentice hairdresser.
In April 1941, underage, Ben went to Uxbridge to volunteer for RAF air crew, lying about how old he was. His father said he would tell the RAF he was too young if he went back, so Ben had to wait till he was of age and then received papers to report to Lords cricket ground Initial Training Wing (ITW) to do his square bashing on January 26, 1942.
Divided into squads by older RAF instructors, the men were marched to neighboring blocks of flats that had been commandeered by the RAF as barracks, where they were allocated rooms in the flats in Viceroy Court in Prince Albert Road. Ben found himself on the 6th floor but use of the lifts was forbidden to all recruits, as hob-nailed boots would ruin the fabric of the lift. The nearby Zoo canteen became their mess, and drill would be on the streets! Then they were marched to a nearby requisitioned car showroom close to Baker Street, to collect their kit in a long, huge room where they lined up, and as they moved along were given each item in turn with very rough estimates as to proper size. By the end of the day they had all their kit as rookie airmen, thrown into a kit bag.
Marched back to barracks, they were instructed by the sergeants to take the mattress bag and go and fill it with straw from a supply on the ground floor and then were shown how to lay out their kit on their beds, military style. Then they were allowed to go to the small canteen on the first floor for tea and cake. That ended their first day.
Ben realized it was easy to get home and have his evening meal with his family, and get back for “lights out,” but one evening he was caught. He had not asked permission or signed out and one man informed on him as he was not there when his name was called for sentry duty one evening (duty was carried out using a baton). Ben had arranged for a Jewish friend to swap duties with him but both had been called and Ben’s absence was discovered by another recruit on guard duty when he got back. He was escorted to the Sergeant in charge, and he told Ben it was a serious court martial issue and marched him away to the guard room; but halfway he sent him back and said next time to ask him - so Ben got away with it due to a soft-hearted Sergeant.
Next day he went to find the boastful corporal who had snitched on him and they had a stand-up fight.
After two weeks or so square bashing the 400 or so men were proficient. Meanwhile Ben had made good friends with a man called Tony Hardy. They were talking one evening and Ben mentioned his bar mitzvah at High Cross synagogue in Tottenham,
which was on the same day as Mosley’s March through Jewish Whitechapel in 1936 (all Ben’s uncles came that evening to the bar mitzvah celebration with cuts and bruises where they had been fighting the Fascists and the police!). Tony then said he had joined the Blackshirts and Ben could not believe it. But Tony explained it was not political; he was so poor, and the Blackshirts gave him nice black trousers and shirts and shoes to wear, he just joined to get the clothes. He also discovered the feeling of power it gave him when groups of them went on buses and people just left and gave them their seats in fear. Ben cursed him out and told him how stupid it was to do such things; all Tony could say was that he did not think Ben looked Jewish ; Ben said, “So what do Jews look like?? What a load of rubbish.” They remained good friends as Tony was not a serious racist and was willing to learn.
Next day, orders came to wear their dress blues the following morning, and all kit to be packed to prepare to move. They were to travel by lorry to Victoria Station; but the decision was made that the men were to march instead to “show the flag” in solidarity with the troops in Singapore who had had to surrender to the Japanese (February 1942). The crowds cheered, thinking they were going to the Far East, and were giving the men cigarettes and sweets. In fact, they went to Brighton for two weeks to the commandeered Hotel Metropole, to take classes on various “ground” subjects such as meteorology, morse code, and navigation, in various locations around the town. Here too they were issued their flying kit - helmet, earpieces, goggles, silk under suit, suede waterproof outer suit, three layers of flying gloves – silk gloves ,with woolen glove second layer cover, and then third layer of leather; finally came the suede and wool- lined flying boots. Ben found his outer suit was covered in dried blood obviously from a previous owner, and he had it exchanged by the stores.
One morning on parade a corporal ordered all colonial recruits to fall out; next to Ben was a Jamaican airman and he was puzzled by this, but it may have been because the men were told to go and have their inoculations to prepare for embarkation leave to go overseas. There followed a big row over the use of the term “embarkation” by the corporal and its appearance on the leave chits, which all had to be recalled and re- written, as this was a security breach.
Ben was then sent to the orderly room to explain why they had discovered TWO enlistment records in his name; Ben explained the premature enlistment when he was underage and so having cleared that up, he was sent to get his jabs; however, being late he received all his cocktail of jabs in one fell swoop with no break in between and as a result became ill. But with the help of his friends, he was carried on to his transport to London for their leave and got himself home with his arm in a sling.
Everywhere he went people thought he was wounded and offered him drinks or a seat on the bus. One man asked him, “Where did they get you mate?” “In the arm,” said Ben, enjoying being a hero.
From London it was back to Brighton and then a train to Blackpool and private digs (air crew tended to get better billets as trainee pilots etc.). The men already wore wing badges on their shoulders and a propeller badge as LAC on the arm, with RAF badge on a forage cap or peak cap – it varied (sadly his wife threw out his RAF uniform after the war). They were also addressed in a group as “Gentlemen” as befits their pilot training status. In Blackpool they did very little and each day a fatherly, veteran RAF Sergeant would parade them and then dismiss them and tell then to go and enjoy
themselves. When asked if he meant it, he said, ‘I am very aware of the order I just gave, I have been here a long time, I do recognize the order dismiss, you are dismissed; now f**k off!!’
This freedom was OK so long as the money held out - £1 and 3 shillings (30p) per week. However, Ben did make a bit on the side at home. His mates sold extra rolls of cloth that the lorry drivers delivering material to his father, gave to the managers at his dad’s factory. They then sold it off to other manufacturers and pocketed the profit themselves. Ben’s share was kept for him.
Ben also discovered that the landladies knew exactly where the men were going and when and by what route; it seemed wrong to the men that this was common knowledge as it meant that such information could reach the enemy and was thus a massive security leak. They reported this to the senior officers, but it is not known what was done about it. Two days later they were ordered to prepare to move. At Blackpool station the Sergeant came round and shook every man’s hand wishing them luck; (Ben became very emotional at this point as he later understood that the veteran knew he would not see many of these men again as they would not make it home; he knew what war was but Ben and his mates were young and inexperienced; their war was yet to come. He wished he could remember the Sergeant’s name).
It was here too Ben met an old Jewish pre-war friend from Stoke Newington, in uniform, he had not seen for years; Harold L. Benedict was half American and had come from the USA to fight for Britain. He was amazed to see him but they never met again till after the war, in London.
The men entrained for Bristol and at every stop, women met them with pots of tea and the tip given the men by their Sergeants – of always keeping your mug at the top of your kit for speedy removal – was at last understood to be so crucial. At Avonmouth they de-trained and were checked aboard SS Highland Princess, an Argentine merchantman, and given hammocks and allocated floor space by Sergeants. Unlike the 4,000 other troops they were only one deck down which meant it would be easier to evacuate if the need arose. Their long eating tables and benches were below the hammocks and each group of 12 was allocated that space for the whole 6-week journey; men paired off, and each pair took a turn as collector of billy cans of food from the galley, for the group, and served it in rotation at each meal. Then they felt and heard the gentle thump of the engines and they set sail. As they left the dock, and standing at the railings of the ship, the hundreds of workers and pedestrians nearby completely ignored them ; this was very disappointing to the men.
They sailed north to Gourock in Scotland where after three days they joined a massive convoy which then made its way via Greenland and the western Atlantic, to avoid the U boats, to Freetown in West Africa. The heat was terrific. Here they refueled with a waiting oiler, and two merchantmen offered Ben a place on their crew if he wanted to desert! Ben politely declined.
The journey continued with daily roll calls, classes with the experienced air crews on board with them, drills and turns manning the obsolete machine guns on the upper
deck which Ben said were useless and rusty WWI Marlin (American) guns that never would have worked anyway if they had been attacked. Morning reveille and lights out, was given by the bag pipe band of the Scots regiments on board, for the whole convoy. Not everyone appreciated the music of the pipes and Ben said that in the evening when they played, the troops in the whole vast convoy would be heard to call out in disapproval across the sea!
Just before arrival in Durban the men were having their evening meal, when a huge boom was heard. Everyone was ordered to boat stations on deck and a large cruiser was seen turning 180 degrees towards a large pall of smoke on the horizon. Rumor was that a U Boat had been sunk, but no information was forthcoming and the men returned to their duties.
On entering Durban, the famous “Lady in White” was on the harbor side in her large white hat and dress, on a podium, singing patriotic songs of welcome; she was a welcome sight (she was Perle Siedle Gibson, and it is reckoned she performed 5,000 times during WW2 to ships leaving and entering the harbor. A statue of her is in the local Museum). Everyone applauded her. They were allowed a few hours shore leave and warned to go around only in threes and if they met up with anyone wearing a two
-safety pin lapel badge, they were to avoid them as they were the anti-British and pro- German Boer “Brotherhood” (Broederbond) Society. They were also told to wear their tin helmets slung on their shoulders to use in case of any violence towards them.
Ben noticed that if they sat on a bus at the back, they were told to move forward by the conductor because of the Apartheid regulations. It was African and Colored only at the rear. Food was in abundance and they ate themselves silly in the restaurants as there were no restrictions on portions or rationing as in the UK of course. Especially noticeable was the huge variety of fruits, some of which they had never even heard of.
The RAF men then boarded next day on to a Pullman style Orient Express luxury train to go north to Bulawayo in Rhodesia.
The luxury journey with 1st class accommodation and food was a joy. They travelled via Johannesburg, Mafeking, and Ladysmith and at each stop the local people were at the station with food and refreshments, cheering the men on. After three days they arrived in Bulawayo and whilst their kit was taken by road to their air base at Hillside, the men had to march, with local South African Sergeants, joining them, to show the flag and the local people that Allied Airmen had arrived in strength.
Hillside was a former cattle show complex but had been totally refurbished to cater for troops in huts. The RAF trainees were placed in a huge aircraft hangar style building with hundreds of beds ready for use. After some days they started square bashing again and ground flying lessons, but this time men were chosen as “squad leaders” from among the raw recruits and taught to drill the other men; Ben was one of these as he had so far excelled in his theory work.
The training began on Tiger Moths, with men who had done their tours and opted to become trainers. After some instruction on how to actually get in and out the plane without damaging the wing, there followed cockpit familiarity with the instruments with the training officer, who then told Ben to go and study the handbook in depth. Then next lesson was how to start the engine, switches, petrol on, throttle, the various signs to make to the ground crew for start, chocks away, and so forth. Then with eyes on the windsock, begin take off. The instructor then told Ben to put down right rudder as he walked him round on the ground in a circle, then how to switch off; that was lesson two. This was repeated for several days and then Ben and some other outstanding students were chosen to instruct other men on how to do the same. The next stage was to repeat these ground lessons but under a dark hood with dark goggles, in order to train how to do it all by touch in darkness.
Then the trainees were handed over to another instructor for their first dual control flight. The trainees were very anxious and collected their flying kit. After so many hours flying time, in Ben’s case about 12 hours, men were sent solo depending on how fast they had learnt. Ben was told he had done exceedingly well. But nevertheless, this was extremely nerve racking for him and all the men – first solo flight – and with shaking hands Ben took off and landed safely and correctly.
The men then proceeded to other training centers at Induna and Gwelo/Gweru, progressing to flying American twin engine planes, as well as Air Speed Oxfords and Ansons; and then they had to choose between becoming a fighter or bomber pilot. Ben chose fighter pilot but was given Bomber Command. Anyone who failed was transferred to Navigation, Bomb Aimer/Observer or Air Gunner/Wireless Operator courses. For the passing out parade Ben invited the local Jewish family he had got to know called Lithins, in Bulawayo. Ben got his pilot wings, worn over the left breast pocket, and wore his Sergeant stripes, with forage cap and RAF badge.
Suddenly the pilots were ordered to their first operation which was to overfly Madagascar during the Allied invasion of the Vichy controlled island, as a show of force. It was without incident but Ben’s first operational flight in Anson bombers.
Ben and his group were then taken back to Durban and then by ship to Port Suez in Egypt. Here they saw hundreds of Italian POWs lined up waiting to be transported elsewhere. Then at a nearby transit camp they stayed for a week or so and crewed up – Ben (Pilot) was with Stan Smythe (Navigator), Tony Hardy (Wireless Op and Gunner), Victor Peach and Austrin. Here they also heard about the battle of Alamein (October 1942), then were taken by train to Heliopolis camp near Cairo. From here they were taken by train to near Alamein and Ben and his crew were told they were to be attached to 104 Squadron, flying Wellington Bombers, as replacements, and so were to await being picked up. Nothing happened so they hitched a ride on lorries to take them to the base. The mission of 104 and all Squadrons, was to keep mobile and using lorries, be close up behind the advancing allies, moving the RAF airstrips as near to the advance as possible so as to be working closely with ground and naval forces. 104 Squadron’s insignia was a winged thunderbolt and the motto, “Strike Hard.”
Meanwhile an incident took place between Ben and a man called Taffy in his squadron (he never knew his real name). This man was, unbeknown to Ben, a nasty anti-Semite. Whilst in transit between two desert bases, the men were stopped by some red caps (Military Police) who warned them that up ahead was a group of local Arabs who had been bullying some local Jewish families. The Arabs thought the British approaching them were Germans and they were anxious to point out the Jews to them, hoping the Jews would be killed. Ben and his colleagues approached the Jews and explained they were British and Ben spoke some Arabic to them explaining he was a Jewish English soldier (“Di yehudi inglesie escari”). Ben took out his 45 pistol (all aircrew were issued with these for defense) and pointed it at the Arabs who had come to gloat at the Jews, and they ran a mile. Ben and his friends gave them some food and they thanked them, with Ben translating into English. Meanwhile, Taffy realized that his good friend Ben was a Jew and he began cursing him saying he hated Jews and if he had known he would never have been a friend, and then he threw a punch at Ben. Ben parried this and hit him and knocked him down and kicked his backside. The others pulled them apart and Ben never spoke to him again. Stan and Tony praised Ben for what he had done, and they moved off.
Their first base was Misurata, a large town on the Libyan coast. The CO was Squadron Leader Legoode. Here they studied the Wellington’s workings, very similar to other twin-engine planes they knew and were familiar with. Ben’s aircraft was E for Eddy. From here they moved to Sfax and Derna. Their main mission was now sweeping out to sea and bombing Rommel’s supply ships which were trying to bring him fuel, ammunition and food as he fled west from the advancing 8th Army and also trying to evacuate his troops in a mini-Dunkirk. Ben and his men bombed many enemy ships and played a big part in Rommel’s demise.
They would be given co-ordinates by radio, of suspected enemy ships, and then go down and investigate to check their identity, then bomb, always coming side on to ensure one of the string of bombs hit home, as taught in training. When needed they would also strafe the ships. Ben was wounded on three separate missions by flak, in the shoulder and legs. He explained that he never noticed it till landing when he felt the stiffness in his limbs, saw the blood, and the shock wore off to produce the pain. Ben said everyone was very nervous before a mission, shaking and sweating in turn , hoping all would be well. As skipper, he had the extra responsibility of decision making and caring for his crew and aircraft, as well as being pilot and leader, and the terrific pressure of not showing any of this fear so as to keep up the morale of his men with jokes and sarcasm. Other missions involved hitting targets for the army such as enemy fuel and ammunition dumps. Once they supported French General Koenig in a battle.
Briefings for a mission (during which the pilot and navigator mainly, took notes on their knee mount pads), usually took place in a large tent or even outdoors in the desert. Then, they had a meal and collected their parachutes, making dark jokes about hoping they will open and how well they have been packed, to the storemen – “if it doesn’t work, I’m going to bring it back” type-humor! Then lorries took the crews to their dispersed aircraft as one can see in documentaries and movies, and the ground crews already had the aircraft ready for takeoff; the crew would take sandwiches and a flask, prepared by the cooks as missions could last up to several hours there and back. If a mission involved a short distance, the pilot would overload on bombs, and under-load on fuel – or vice versa for long distance raids. Similarly with bomb types; for fuel dumps, they would load more incendiaries; for vehicles, high explosive, and so forth. Ben explained that the parachute was only half clipped on the pilot and was sat on. In the event of being shot down, the pilot would have to strap on fully, and then get out of the cockpit to exit the aircraft AFTER first seeing his crew had already got out; his chance of survival was thus much lower. Few if any air crew got the chance of doing a training jump to get used to parachuting.
During the flight to the target the navigator did most of the talking on the intercom as he was giving directions, just behind the pilot; he was also a co-pilot having taken the flying course, in case something happens to the pilot; there was also a lot of banter, jesting and jokes until the pilot called for silence, often in quite colorful language.
The gunners were nose and rear and the Wireless Op behind the navigator.
For one mission Ben had to meet the famous British born, New Zealand General, Freyberg, who had been tasked with finding a way through the Qattara Depression sand sea, by Montgomery, to outflank Rommel as he retreated. Ben was tasked with the very difficult job of finding Freyberg in a flight of three Wellington’s in the desert, watching for identification lights and signals, and finally dropping Freyberg’s men their supplies at agreed places by parachute. Twice Ben was attacked by German aircraft, once by ME 110’s, and a second time by ME109’s – but the Wellington gunners fought back and the enemy failed to hit him.
Ben is not sure why he got his Mention in Despatches (MiD) but he thinks it was for excellent work on his Tour and a suggestion he made about flying tactics to his Commanding Officer. The traditional flying formation was a V with three aircraft all flying level; this formation, with full bomb and fuel load, together with strong winds, was very difficult to maintain. But worse, it enabled a good enemy fighter to simply attack from below on the exposed belly of the plane. So, Ben suggested a staggered, three step formation at three different levels, with the lower aircraft protecting the upper ones from attack from below; it was also easier to maintain this formation and safer, making collision in mid-air far less likely.
Food was very monotonous in the desert (corn beef would be served in a hundred different ways!) and the same as what the army received, whilst in the UK the RAF air crew usually had special rations owing to the dangerous nature of their work; this simply was not available overseas unless they were located near an American squadron. The Americans loved corn beef and so the Brits would swap them for spam, fruit, and other food. On one occasion the train manager bringing the American and British supplies to the nearby railhead, confused the delivery locations and 104 got the U.S. supplies in error; they could not believe the quality – fruit juices, steaks, tinned lobster and chicken, vegetables, and other foods.
When the squadron reached Sousse in mid-1943, the North Africa campaign was nearly over, but 104 were still bombing Rommel’s ships trying to evacuate the Afrika Corps to Italy. Then 104 were given leave in Tunis and stood down. It was about this time that Ben met Jewish Chaplain Rabbi Brodie, later Chief Rabbi of the UK. He came to Ben’s base with his driver in an army car and was allowed to use the CO’s tent to chat with Ben for about 20 minutes. He gave Ben a Jewish prayer book and later left for other duties.
Afterwards they were given chitties to go through the captured German equipment piled near Tunis to see if anything was useful for the squadron and Ben towed a generator back to the airfield.
Then came a week’s missions to bomb Sicily as the Allies invaded and advanced there. It was mainly
targets of opportunity, with orders to avoid bombing the ports which the Allies wanted undamaged.
At this point Ben heard his young uncle and close friend Jacky Lewis (youngest brother of his mother Katie) was in a camp nearby serving in the Pioneer Corps. Ben made a great effort to get to see him and succeeded in getting to the camp . Sadly, he was told by the duty Sergeant that his company had just left to return to the UK by ship to prepare for D-Day and Ben just missed him by half an hour. In August 1944, Ben was sent a letter from home telling him Jacky had been killed in Normandy. Ben became very upset when telling this part of the story.
Air Sea Rescue
Then came the big day that Ben and his crew were told they had done their 30 sorties or missions and the tour was complete. If they wanted to choose from a list of trades, they could, or agree to another tour. Few of the desk jobs appealed to Ben and his mates but they noticed at the very bottom of the list something that did. It was MBC or Motor Boat Crew – RAF Air Sea Rescue in Port Said. So, they handed in their flying kit, and off they went to begin a 2,000 miles trip east by lorry. However, Ben had a word with the Sergeant in charge of the lorry convoy at Tripoli and said if he could drop Ben at the airport, Ben could wangle a flight back to Cairo himself. At the airport Ben handed his papers to the traffic controller and he looked up at Ben and exclaimed, “Hello Bergy? I remember you on the ship out, taking part in the boxing matches. How are you?” After that it was no problem getting a place to sleep and a flight back to Cairo on a Dakota next day! At Cairo, he was told he could take some leave and so spent time with some other posted airmen in the city’s bars and restaurants; here it was he experienced for the first time Indian food with Indian troops. He also met two Jewish families called Solomons and strangely, Isenberg, his original family name, who invited him to their homes on several occasions.
Air Sea Rescue
Then Ben took the train to Port Said and it was whilst on board that a lot of his kit was stolen by the organized Arab gangs that plagued the railways in Egypt. In the orderly room at the Air Sea Rescue base was a French Jewish Corporal in charge who was multi-lingual, and looked after Ben. Next day they started the course on 80 feet American style fast PT boats with RAF roundels – his was number 2536. Ben’s training now included some skills he already knew – navigation, morse, flags, knots (from scouting days) and so on. Ben became a coxen, which was 2nd in command of the boat and learnt many boating skills. The American boats were very spacious and well equipped and had a crew of ten. There was even a fridge! His skipper was a British officer, named George Washington. Their main ops were patrolling the Egyptian coast and after a month they were posted to Aden. Their main duties were escorting convoys on their way to the Far East war with the Japanese.
From Aden, Ben went to Port Said to study for his promotion to 1st Coxen. The war in Europe was now over (May 1945). But he persuaded the local commanders to send him home as his time was about up and to travel needlessly to Aden only to be sent home soon after was a pointless expense.
Ben’s proposal was agreed and he travelled from Alexandria to Marseilles then train to Dieppe where they were given new uniforms, and then boat to Newhaven and Blighty. Here the men, most returning like Ben after 4 years or more away from home, and fighting the enemy, were harassed by pompous Customs Officers about duty to be paid on gifts they were bringing home for families. Fistfights broke out and several customs officers ended up thrown into the sea. Onshore Ben met a fellow RAF Londoner from Tottenham as well, and he asked him to call his parents and say he was on his way home. Unbeknown to Ben his parents thus knew the exact time of his expected arrival in Tottenham.
On arrival in London, Ben was sent to Hornchurch aerodrome for two days and then was sent home via Manor House tube and a taxi to Mafeking Road, for one month’s demob leave. On arrival he saw a banner over the house welcoming him home after 4 years absence, and all the family and many friends there to greet him. His friend in Newhaven had done his job perfectly. Ben became quite emotional again at this point in his story.
From home, Ben was ordered to Calshot near Portsmouth to the ASR HQ for demob, then to Plymouth for no reason at all, in the chaos of thousands of men being demobilized. Finally came orders to return to Uxbridge where he entered a huge hangar in uniform and came out the other end in his demob civilian clothes, and demob cash, a free man after four years of service. At the exit was a young officer in uniform to shake hands with them and repeating, “Thank you very much for your service”; to which the men were replying, “F**k off mate.” Ben said, “The young bloke took it all like a man”!!! To say that all the men felt ecstatic, would be putting it mildly. It was September 17, 1946.
The next day Ben’s father took him to the factory insisting he wore his RAF uniform and medals, and the staff there made a huge fuss of him. Ben had the 1939-45 Star, North Africa Star with Desert War Battle Rosette, Italy Star, Defense Medal and War Medal with Mention in Despatches oak leaf cluster. Ben still has an old RAF railway warrant,
In case they want to call me up again, he said. He also kept the very rare “blue duster” flag from his ASR boat, with wooden pole and rope attached.
Postwar Ben’s squadron never had reunions, but he did attend ASR reunions each year in Maiden Lane in London. Within a few years over a hundred would attend each time. He also joined AJEX but never attended a parade until 2017. He met Frieda and, in 1949, they were married in Egerton Road synagogue in Stamford Hill; they had two children.
(Interviewed aged 94 years on June 9, 2017, in Chingford by Martin Sugarman, AJEX Archivist and author)