Like Alan Pollock, George ‘Tommy’ Atkins served in two legendary squadrons – the first, No. 1(F), the Royal Air Force’s oldest operational unit and one that has been involved in almost every British military operation since the First World War – and ‘the Fighting Cocks’, 43 (F) Squadron. Tommy had been an engineer in the pre-war motoring industry, and went on to service BATTLE OF BRITAIN HURRICANES, SPITFIRES in ITALY, & 1944/45 LANCASTERS. Among ‘The Long and the Short and the Tall’, he was one of many GROUND TECHNICIANS who played a vital role throughout the war. He first employed his engineering talents in the pre-war motor industry, and so was amply fitted for his later role as a ground technician.
Alan Pollock recalls that:
“George was a very typical example of the very modest ground crew who got on with things on the ground to put the aircraft in the air. I think most people that flew had their own urgencies before they took off – in peacetime and in wartime – and they were extremely grateful for the whole slick organisation that gave them a serviceable aircraft, so you took off, got your wheels up, and the whole thing worked. Their role, to some extent, was undervalued. Inevitably, perhaps, because the flying stars – the people who knocked the enemy aircraft down – were in the public gaze. They called him ‘Tommy’ because in World War I. ‘Tommy Atkins’ was used as a moniker for the average enlisted man. What was splendid about George is that he had the variety of experience – earlier and much later – where he went to Europe, also, and I just thought he was a marvellous example of the people who were enlisted and did their job.”
‘Tommy Atkins’ was still sufficiently common slang in 1945 that General Mark W Clark used them in an address extolling the bravery of Indian troops, published in this poster:
The role of the ground crew is briefly summarised by the Imperial War Museums on their website: As well as carrying out their regular duties, members of the ground crew would be called upon during German raids on their airfields. They towed damaged aircraft away from runways to make room for others to land, repaired damage from raids, fought fires and helped pilots out of their aircraft. Ground crew fulfilled these responsibilities whilst sometimes under fire themselves, leaving them extremely vulnerable. Many were killed during the Battle of Britain.
Stan Harthill was a member of the ground crew staff who worked on Mark 2 Spitfires, who describes the life:
“The ground crew felt we had a very important part to play in the Battle of Britain because our job was to keep the Spits flying and without the Spits the pilots were of course useless. We would start very early, sometimes at 7am and go to our dispersal point at Middle Wallop.
We had to do a daily inspection of every aircraft. I’d check the Spit over, see that everything was working and then sign a log book saying I’d checked it over and it was ready to go into action.
Then when they came back it was a matter of getting them airworthy as quickly as possible.
Sometimes they’d be back very late from a sortie, it would be dusk before some pilots were home. Luckily there was a local canteen run by the officers’ wives where we could get egg and chips until eleven p.m. – that was very handy for the ground crew boys!
But we’d be up ready to start all over again the next morning.
At our dispersal we had 12 Spitfires to look after. I remember one day a pilot saying to me, ‘Stan, the underbelly of my Spitfire is pale blue. The reason for that is if I’m flying above the Germans they can’t see me against the sky. It’s got oil streaks running down the blue and it’s quite discernible – would you mind in future cleaning the oil marks off so I have a completely blue undercarriage.’
I was a little cheesed off by that but afterwards I thought, it’s his life at risk, not mine and it wasn’t much to ask me to get some rags and clean his Spitfire – which I did regularly every day after that for him.”
Pathe newsreel including “Various shots of RAF (Royal Air Force) ground crew cleaning and preparing a American Boeing Flying Fortress (B.19) for flight:
Pathe newsreel (below): “It’s In The Air!” (1944):
(Includes an account of the raid on Tangmere that killed and wounded ground crew technicians and civilians).
The station was soon back in service – and the Royal Air Force would hit back…