“Taking The Rough With The Smooth” with an Introduction by Doug Murgatroyd
Ken (Bogey) Murch will be remembered as the enthusiastic, knowledgeable teacher of biology at school. Homework consisted of collecting wild mushrooms and toadstools, the largest leaves, jam jars dipped in water from woodland ponds full of water boatmen, amoebae and frog spawn which we all viewed through a microscope.
This was a magical experience for us as 11 and 12-year-olds. I remember the hours spent on copying and memorizing drawings of parts of the eye, the human skeleton and the various parts of plants and insects. I loved the subject so much that I joined the Junior Bug Club where we cycled off on Saturday mornings to places like Old Park Wood in Bosham and Kingley Vale to view all manner of flora and fauna. I was sold on the subject. Unfortunately, my forte did not encompass the other sciences and by the 3rd year we had to decide between Arts or Science, so my choices of subject could not include Biology as an option in the 4th year for “O” level. “
Bogey Murch was a born teacher and I guess many budding doctors, dentists, vets, microbiologists etc. emanating from the High School would have much to thank him for.
Ken Murch was a man of many parts. Having left Brentwood Grammar School in 1936 he went on to study at University College London where he gained a BSc and joined the RAF soon after graduating in 1939. He had a thoroughly rewarding wartime career as an instrument engineer, starting life in the ranks and eventually becoming commissioned as a Flight Lieutenant. During his war service, he was variously in charge of major servicing units, chief instructor instruments, a team member of the testing group which piloted the automatic pilot system, “George”, and flew over 200 hours in Lancasters as the Test Engineer teaching and training pilot in the use of “George”.
His love of the RAF never left him and he was commissioned as a Pilot Officer to run the CCF at the High School. Later on in retirement, he spent endless hours at Tangmere Aviation Museum as a stalwart of its dedicated team. He even asked for his ashes to be scattered in the grounds of the museum at Tangmere. It is much to his credit that he obtained a Private Pilot’s License when he was 58 years old and notwithstanding all this he still found time to become the Scout Leader of Chichester’8th Scout Troop.
Taking The Rough With The Smooth
Wartime Memories of an Instrument Basher
By K A Murch
Born in 1917 1 received an early introduction to aviation when, the day after I was born, I was in a Zeppelin air raid when a nurse was killed a mile away, so my parents told me. I volunteered for the RAF in September 1939, after gaining my BSc degree, was accepted immediately and posted to Uxbridge for initial training. My memories of this are of being issued with “maternity” type uniform with the high neck collar and of Forming Fours on the drill square. Only later did the Forming Threes come in to comply with the traffic needs. I then started my training for the instrument trade at the Northampton Polytechnic, Camberwell, London, being billeted on the top floor, but in view of the possibility of air raids we were soon posted to Cranwell from where I passed out as an Instrument Repairer Group 11 in May 1940. A vivid memory of Cranwell was the night an Airspeed Oxford crashed on the huts where we were sleeping a splintering crash and explosion. We were lucky – the aircraft hit the toilet block first before wrecking our wooden hut. No serious injuries, minor ones due to broken glass. As NCO of the hut, I had to restrain the men from smoking; there was a distinct smell of petrol from the crashed aircraft.
At the end of May 1940, I was posted to 64 Squadron (Spitfires) at Kenley in time for the Battle of Britain. There were many, very long hours. We were up at dawn and on duty during the hours of daylight. The Germans came any time with bombs and machine guns, with a devastating raid on August 18. Things that stick in the memory of that time are the cheer that went up from all the ground crew when a Spitfire returned having fired its guns evidenced by the red patch covering the gun muzzles being shot away, a wounded pilot bringing in a damaged Spitfire, wheels up, to land amongst a shower of sparks and soil going everywhere, or a Spitfire making a shaky landing coming to a stop with the engine ticking over and nobody getting out until an ambulance rushed up.
My big problem was changing the oxygen bottle after every sortie. It involved taking out the armour plate behind the pilot’s seat, undoing the pipework, making sure no oil or grease got on it otherwise spontaneous combustion would occur on contact with oxygen, taking out the empty bottle and replacing it with a full one and finally putting back the armour plate. All had to be done as quickly as possible, seconds saved were vital, aircraft on the ground were in danger.
Another problem with oxygen was that the pilots were running out at altitude and coming back blue in the face, so a hand wheel was put on the oxygen bottle so pilots could turn on the oxygen themselves and economise in supply. This hand wheel, however, caused too much leverage so that the screw thread on the oxygen bottle was damaged, hence the whole bottle became useless and had to be sent back to the manufacturers resulting in the later stages of the Battle in a grave shortage of oxygen bottles. I was going to be sent direct to the manufacturers to get supplies and then came the devastating raid of August 18. In this raid, we were attacked by Dornier 17s at low level. Hangars were set on fire, the airfield covered in bomb craters and there were many casualties. Next day we were evacuated by Handley Page Harrow aircraft to Leconfield in Yorkshire.
Things were much quieter here, the main incident I remember being when a Spitfire landed on top of an aircraft on which I was working. I was just getting into the cockpit and looked back to see a Spitfire very, very close. I threw myself out of the aircraft, landed on my back on the ground and had a magnificent view of the port wheel crashing through the cockpit and windscreen of the Spitfire I had just been working on. The landing Spitfire wobbled to make a shaky landing.
Soon after this incident, I was posted on a Group I Instrument Repair Course and an Instructor’s course to be an instructor at the School of Technical Training at Melksham, Wiltshire. Here, life was very routine, relieved in the spring of 1942 by an attachment to 15 Squadron at Wyton, flying Short Stirlings, where I had a lucky escape. Two Stirlings had to be air tested at the same time to check the automatic pilots in the air. I took one aircraft and another instrument repairer the second. We took off together but the other aircraft caught fire and crashed – I saw the burning wreckage on the ground. The chap in this was badly burned but I do not know whether he survived as I returned to Melksham the next day. Also at Wyton I recall once being in an iced-up Stirling and diving more or less out of control until we reached warmer levels. Another memory of the Stirling is that you could walk safely under the propellers with the engine running – the tall undercarriage allowed this. Try this with any other aircraft and you would get your head knocked off.
The period of instructing was also relieved by an attachment to a Coastal Command unit flying Hudsons and Ansons; this was at Silloth on the Solway Firth. My main memory of this is a flight down the west coast of Scotland; the lochs looked very beautiful in the moonlight.
In December 1943 I was posted to No 32 Base Major Servicing Unit as Flight Sergeant in charge of the Instrument Section. The base received new aircraft straight from the manufacturers. These then had to receive all the modifications required by 3 Group before being issued to the squadrons in the group. This also involved air testing by a specialist crew of which I became a part, concentrating on tuning and testing the automatic pilots. Sometimes these would come to us badly adjusted, so that on cutting in the aircraft would leap up or down like a bucking bronco. In addition to this air testing, I was responsible for the instrument side of the major servicing and inspections carried out by the base. From this unit I received my final.
Memories of this unit are many. One that stands out is when I was coming back with the test crew having delivered an aircraft. It was dusk and it was drizzling when there was a terrific explosion lighting up the sky. An aircraft had crashed so we all piled out of the van leaving all our parachutes and other gear and raced across a cabbage field to where we could see wreckage burning in the hope we might be able to pull someone out alive. Too late we found the pilot’s headless torso amongst the flames. The aircraft was a Mosquito, a wooden aircraft, and I shall never forget the flickering flames of burning pieces of wood scattered far and wide over the surrounding fields. Only later did I find out that the pilot was a school friend of mine – we were at Brentwood together but had lost touch, a strange coincidence.
From Mildenhall I received my final posting to Newmarket to become Autopilot Engineer for 3 Group, working from 3 Group Headquarters at Exning, a big country house not far from Newmarket. In this job I was sent to each aerodrome in the group to lecture pilots and flight engineers on how to get the best out of the autopilot and going up with them to show them in the air, as well as tuning and adjusting the autopilot. I also had to instruct ground crew in the finer points of maintaining the complicated instruments. The result was that I flew with a very large number of different crews on various squadrons I visited, sometimes flying on very long trips day or night. Inevitably, incidents occurred which tend to stick in the memory, for instance, an engine caught fire and I remember the long stream of black smoke extending back to the horizon like the wake of a ship. The fire did not go out on the first shot of the fire-extinguisher and the order Prepare to abandon aircraft was given, upon which I clipped on my parachute, but the second shot of fire-extinguisher worked and the order was cancelled. Another time the radar caught fire, filling the aircraft with thick, black smoke that was very acrid. We all had to put on our portable oxygen kits whilst we tackled the fire with extinguishers. We were successful and limped home.
On another occasion, an Australian pilot failed to strap himself in, went into a dive and got thrown up to the roof losing control momentarily. We were saved by the flight engineer winding the elevator trim-wheel back furiously so the pilot could regain control. There was no safety belt fitted for me, so I was thrown up into the roof along with the pilot. I shall never forget seeing the ground straight over the nose of the aircraft at an altitude of 4,000 ft. The pull out badly strained the aircraft; when we landed and inspected it the fuel tanks had tried to burst through the lower skin, the rivets had gone and the tanks were leaking. It was amazing to see how many people turned up to refill their lighters – thank goodness nobody tried to see whether they worked.
Another lucky escape was when taking off I noticed the starboard inner engine was covered in a white mist. I thought we had a glycol leak and reported it as such to the pilot who immediately stopped and feathered the engine. Only when we landed did we find the main fuel line from the booster pump had come off and that petrol was being forced out at a rate of 400 gallons an hour causing the white mist. At take-off, the engine exhaust stubs run red-hot as flames shoot out. Why the petrol vapour never caught fire I shall never know.
At about this time a Lancaster had dived into the ground, I think, at Jouvincourt on the Continent, killing all crew, and it was suspected that the autopilot was the cause. Subsequent investigation showed that swarf had jammed the relay valve of the autopilot. A second incident happened in England, this time with non-fatal results as the pilot was able to pull out in time, but causing injury to the crew. I was co-opted onto the Court of Enquiry and a squadron leader and I flew around in an Oxford interviewing the crew and maintenance personnel and stripping down the autopilot. I too found swarf from a tapped hole.
As a result of all this, Group put a ban on the use of the autopilot until the relay valves could be cleaned of swarf and checked. I was then sent to Farnborough on a course as to how best to do this and on my return to train a team of corporals. By this time the war was nearly at an end and I was selected to dismantle and clean the relay valve of the autopilot of the special white Lancaster to be used by the Chief of Bomber Command, Sir Arthur Harris, on his tour of South Africa. This resulted in my longest test flight — Mildenhall to the Faroe Islands, across the North Sea to Norway and down the European coast to France and back to Mildenhall. I was very relieved to find out later that the autopilot had performed perfectly for 58 hours during the trip. My team of corporals and I had a workshop van and we visited each squadron in the group talking out the relay valves, dismantling them and cleaning them in white spirit and reassembling them, a time-consuming business which I was destined never to see finished as my demob came through in November 1945.
Some general observations in conclusion: I have experienced every rank (except Warrant Officer) from AC2 to Flt. Lt.; sometimes things were very routine, sometimes not much seemed to be happening; other times were hectic such as just before D-Day, or very hectic indeed as in the Battle of Britain when we lost all count of time, indeed we did not know what day it was, you just kept going getting more and more exhausted as time went on. Service life is what you make it, you take the rough with the smooth. I would not have missed it; I did things that I would never have done in civilian life.