Some Memories of Working on Blackburn Skuas at No 2 AACU
In 2011 I was delighted to be contacted from New Zealand by Don Sutherland who maintained Skuas at No 2 AACU (anti-aircraft Co-operation Unit) at Gosport near Portsmouth. He answered the following questions about working on Skua. Sadly Don passed away on 1st July 2013.
Don Sutherland arrived at No 2 AACU Gosport in November 1939...
"My first aircraft was that of a Blackburn Shark - a biplane modified to tow a full size target. It so happened, that during a target towing exercise over the Naval Gunnery School at Eastney Marine Barracks one became trapped in a real pea-souper of a fog and lost their bearings. The pilot Sgt Wilkins and his target operator W/Op Trevor Verrier failed to note some sort of object by which to use as a guide, and having reached the point of running out of fuel had no option but to bale out. It so happened they floated down over Birmingham. I missed my 1029 Shark. It was then I was promoted to a Blackburn Skua, and soon to became attached to it alike to the Shark."
What was it like to work on the Skua?
"The ground crews found the Skua easy to maintain and had no complaints whatsoever. The daily inspection went as follows :- I would climb aboard and become seated on the pilot seat then start the engine by way of the cartridge system. The cartridge mechanism was situated just below the radial engine and when activated from the cockpit would fire a cartridge alike to that of a shot-gun. In the event the engine failed to fire the cartridge case revolved - replacing the old cartridge with a new one. The moment the engine had exploded into action, it was left to idle for a spell in order to get warmed up. Once satisfied it had reached that point, it was a case of having two other airmen spreadeagle on the tail plane to save it from taking off when the throttle increased power. It was then a case of cocking the ear for some unwanted effect while checking the oil pressure and mags. Although not informed by way of sound, it was soon to detect a problem with an oil leak as the windscreen and one side of the aircraft were covered in the black gooey stuff. I only had it happen once and was soon to detect a leak in the prop boss, the centre part of the airscrew. (Propeller). All our Skua's were coloured yellow and looked quite attractive. They stood out alongside the Blackburn Roc's with their silver coating."
Did you get the chance to fly in a Skua?
"All of my flying hours were aboard a Skua. On the odd occasion the exercise was target towing - the target being a drogue or sleeve. When it came to low level or high dive bombing I appeared to be one of the few who volunteered when the pilot was Nobby Clark. He was looked upon as the dare-devil pilot. Once aboard the Skua, I would have my parachute harness linked by chain to the floor. It wasn't so much false confidence for once airborne the mind and eye absorbed the fantastic view. On a clear day, South Parade Pier stood out, also Whale Island. In the first instance, Nobby would indicate his presence with a few low level bombings - such an operation being smooth - then climb to about 1500 ft, keel over and drop like a stone. Although aware of the exercise, there came the point when I was saying to myself, "Nobby, isn't it about time you pulled out?" The images below were becoming close and clearer. It was then - as if he had heard me above the noise of the engine - he pulled the stick back. That moment it felt as if my stomach was between my knees and forced to take a deep breath. Had I been blessed with confidence and peeped over the side I feel sure I would've seen our tyre marks on the garage roof. God knows why I volunteered so often!"
Do you have any particular memories of events at No 2 AACU?
"I now have two points of interest, with the first being on Xmas Day 1939. It so happened, the parade was cancelled so we marched direct to the hanger. It was then we were informed that Winston Churchill was to visit the Gunnery School and view the progress. So be it, Shark 1029 was detailed to tow the full size target. Before it was rolled up and strapped into place it was decided a couple of riggers paint "A Merry Xmas" on it. The paint used was quick-drying. The pilot was Sgt Wilkins, while Trevor Verrier had to manipulate the winch. On their return - minus the target - Trevor was certain the gunners were not learners - for the target was shot to pieces."
"Interest No2 relates to the period near the end of May, when my Skua was due for an overhaul and spent the next few days stripping it down. Having been put in place on a special platform two riggers, supervised by a sergeant, went to town on the bodywork while I - supervised by a Cpl Fitter - prepared for the moving of the engine. On standby was the instrument technician waiting to play his part. The engine - a Bristol Perseus X11G cylinder sleeve valve air cooled radial engine was soon to be hoisted out onto a bench and stripped down. It was then I had the job of washing all the parts in petrol. Before reassembling the engine it was deemed necessary to replace the piston rings. Such an operation may sound short by way of time, but in fact we were into the third morning when putting the finishing touches to a somewhat difficult task. It was about 10AM when the C.O. arrived - accompanied by some high ranking officer. Following a brief examination and the passing of a few words to our C.O. turned to us and in a demanding tone of voice spoke " I want this plane to be ready by 3 pm this afternoon." Returning our salute, they were soon on their way. It wasn't so much panic stations but there was no time to hang about. Come 3pm the plane was pushed out onto the tarmac - close to the control tower. It was then we became aware it was due to take off at 4pm, which meant there was no time for an air test. It was then left to me to sit in the cock-pit and keep the engine running - at times opening the throttle - then back to normal rev's. It was about 3-45pm when Trevor Verrier arrived and loaded boxes into the rear cockpit. A short time later he came out in his flying gear - accompanied by the pilot Sgt Wilkins. With the engine still ticking over I climbed out and allowed the pilot take my place. Minutes later I removed the chocks then stepped back with the others -silently wishing them luck - for we had no idea as to the exercise they had been detailed for. Two days later they returned, with P/O Nobby Clarke in the other Skua. It was then Trevor explained the situation at Dunkirk and how they had been towing flares."
The Skuas had been involved in towing flares behind them over the shipping lanes leading to the Dunkirk beaches to help illuminate any German E-boats trying to attack. - A particularly dangerous task since the light of the flare blinded the pilot. Nobby Clarke wrote an account of this in his article "Ghost Fighters over Dunkirk" in the April 1959 edition of the RAF Flying Review. Two other articles by Clarke in the same magazine also covered his time at No 2 AACU - "The Decision is Always the Pilots" in the October 1961 edition and "The Shunned Skua" in the December 1961 edition.
His daughter, Janet, passed on to me notes of his memories of serving in the RAF. I edited these and added footnotes add information about some of the events he witnessed and personalities he met. It has now been published as an ebook on Kindle, Kobo and Smashwords. Any proceeds go to his daughter for onward distribution to forces charities in New Zealand.
<Click here to find it on Amazon Kindle. >
<Click here to find it on Kobo >
<Click here to go to the Smashwords download page.>