27th April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

History: The war, the planes and the Peterson boys

When the Second World War began, life for many families changed forever. Sandy Peterson tells the story of  ‘The war, the planes and the Peterson boys’

It was 1939 at Toab, Virkie. As in homes all over Britain, the Peterson family were listening to the news on the wireless. Robbie, four years old, saw the serious faces and knew that something big was happening. He raised a questioning face to his parents.

“Whit’s up?”

After a pause and a glance at his wife Gracie, his father John spoke.

“Boy, war has been declared.”

We can only guess what these simple, formal words meant to his listeners. What seems certain is that none of them had any idea of how that war would change their lives: sending some of them out into the world and, for the others, sending the world to their very door.

Jimmy and Johnny, the older boys, would leave their routine lives – as a motor mechanic at Thomson’s Garage and a driver for Stewart Eunson – to join the RAF and fly the skies from Germany to Canada; the young boys, Andy and Robbie, would become excited spectators as their peaceful village beside a quiet airport exploded into wartime action.

These Peterson boys were no different from other young Shetlanders. Indeed they were luckier than many because they survived the war with bodies and minds intact. I have decided to tell some of their war stories, not because their exploits were heroic or the events exceptional; in fact, the experiences of these four brothers are interesting simply because they are typical. Nor do these stories pretend to be any kind of chronological history of the war. They are no more than brief glimpses into a strange time, when ordinary people did extraordinary things, and observed extraordinary events.

* * *

The oldest brother Jimmy joined up in July 1940, opting for the RAF and making the natural step from mechanic with cars to mechanic with aeroplanes. After being kitted out in Padgate, Cheshire, and receiving initial training in Kirkham, Lancashire, he was posted to Ford RAF base near Littlehampton and Arundel in West Sussex. With his next posting, to RAF Cosford in Shropshire, Jimmy was promoted from mechanic to fitter.

Their planes were Blenheims, night fighters and light bombers, powered by Bristol Radial engines. The squadron transferred to RAF Thornaby-on Tees in North Yorkshire, from where Jimmy went home to Shetland on leave.

Island servicemen faced extra complications, trying to do their duty while maintaining contact with worried families at home in Shetland. At the end of his leave, Jimmy set off on his return journey to Yorkshire. He was due to depart by ship from Lerwick, but bad weather and enemy activity on the east side forced them to divert to a different ship, sailing from Scalloway. They were then again held up by the gales and were compelled to shelter in Scapa Flow in Orkney. As a result of all these delays, Jimmy arrived back at camp several days late and was faced by an angry adjutant, demanding explanations. Jimmy tried patiently to describe where Shetland was and the problem of getting to and from it – but was dismissed with dire warnings about what would happen if he was ever late again.

In a further irony, Jimmy was immediately posted to Wick, only a few miles from where he’d been trapped in Scapa Flow.

At the base in Wick they came under frequent attack from enemy aircraft, with one raid setting fire to a hangar full of Whitley bombers.?Then Jimmy received word that he was to be posted to Canada, as part of the British Commonwealth Air Training Plan.

* * *

Back in Shetland, Andy and Robbie were also on the move. Their school at Virkie was deemed to be dangerously near to the main runway and was closed. The pupils moved up the road to the building at Scholland. An air-raid shelter had been built and Tammy and Mattie Slater had kindly given up part of their garden to provide a playground. From that playground and other vantage points, like the coastguard hut out to the west or the high ground at The Knowe, the pupils watched the aerial dramas which unfolded in front of their excited eyes.

One playtime they were watching from their playground as a Spitfire carried out a low-flying training exercise. It came screaming down from the direction of the Quendale Sand, just feet above the water. At the Ox Fit rocks near the Lady’s Holm the pilot misjudged his height. The plane smacked into water, somersaulted, broke in two and disappeared.

There was another incident in the same area. A Beaufighter took off to the west but lost power. It cleared the rocks at the end of the holm but then hit the water. The crew could be seen getting out and into their dinghy. An Anson took off and dropped a bigger dinghy. The crew transferred to it – but were then carried away to the north-west by wind and tide. Men from Scatness launched a yoal and set off in pursuit. At this point the watching youngsters lost sight of the dinghy as it disappeared behind Gersness. The incident fortunately had a happy ending, as the yoal eventually brought the crew back safely to land.

Johnny was now also old enough to go to war. He followed Jimmy into the RAF and became an air gunner in the heavy bombers, first in Lancasters and then Halifaxes. Reading his log books was a strange experience for me. Brief, simple, stark facts – the date, the plane, the duty, the target, the duration of the flight. The only evidence of the awful reality is the addition of some small numbers, in pencil and in brackets, tucked into a corner – the planes lost on that operation.

I’ve tried to imagine what it must have been like: these great machines lumbering into the air, loaded down with bombs; the silent hours of nervous anticipation in a cold, cramped, isolated turret; the sudden, frantic encounters with enemy aircraft. Then, on reaching the target, into the mayhem; dazzled by search-lights, deafened by blasts and screaming engines, tensing against the anticipated impact of flying bullets and exploding shells. And all the time trying to do the job of shooting at the shapes which flash past through the confusion of smoke, light and darkness.

I’ve listed some of the entries from Johnny’s log-book. There’s no need for explanation – the simple words tell the story. The only change I’ve made is to put the casualties into a column of their own.

Date AircraftDutyTarget Lost Time
26.11.43Lancaster
(sqdrn 432)
air gunner
m/u turret
Berlin28
aircraft
7 hrs
50mins
20.12.43Lancaster
(po Esdale)
air gunner
m/u turret
Frankfurt14
aircraft
5 hrs
50mins
29.12.43Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Berlin11
aircraft
6 hrs
40mins
5.01.44Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Stettin14
aircraft
8 hrs
25mins
14.01.44Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Brunswick38
aircraft
5 hrs
40mins
21.01.44Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Magdeburg22
aircraft
5 hrs
40mins
27.01.44Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Berlin33
aircraft
8 hrs
05mins
28.01.44Lancaster
DS 829
air gunner
m/u turret
Berlin20
aircraft
7 hrs
40min

For the folk in Toab, their closeness to Sumburgh airport brought some sleepless nights. Beauforts were returning from an unsuccessful search for enemy shipping along the Norwegian coast. Still loaded with their slung torpedoes they approached Shetland, their carburettors icing up on a cold March night.

One plane lost engine power when over Lerwick, tried to land in Dales Voe, but crashed onto the ground that is now the golf course. Another made it to Sumburgh but buckled its undercarriage on landing. Slewing off the runway, the plane crashed into the flight hut and caught fire. The crew ran for safety. From their beds Andy and Robbie woke to the sound of the 303 ammunition going off – and wondered who was firing at whom. They could hear a tannoy announcement, warning people to clear the area. Then a deafening explosion as the torpedo went off. Something rattled onto the roof of the Toab house. A morning inspection revealed pieces of plaster board, remnants of the flight hut, blown half a mile through the air.

One Sunday morning the word went around that something important was about to happen. To the young boys, always alert for news, that could only mean one thing: that there would be action on the runways. The rumour was indeed true, because Sumburgh was to be the landing point for Lancasters returning, short of fuel, from an attack on the Tirpitz in the Norwegian fjords. But, as the morning moved into afternoon without the arrival of any aircraft, a problem grew in the minds of the boys. Because Sunday afternoon meant Sunday school – trapping them inside the Bruce Memorial Hall when they needed to be at their observation points to view events.

Andy decided his priorities and announced that his head was so sore that he couldn’t attend Sunday school. He took up station in the front porch and recorded the arrival of the first big bomber, writing “Lancaster landed” on the door-frame, then changing the number as this one was followed by 10 more. Meanwhile, Robbie and the others who’d gone to the Sunday school also saw the Lancasters approaching, and mounted the dyke for a better view of the runway.
At this point the teachers sensibly decided to accept reality: they called off the Sunday school and allowed the children to watch the historic occasion. The huge aircraft landed on the north-south runway, coming so low over the Toab houses that one of them left a trailing aerial in Tammy Slater’s lum-head.

As a fascinating follow-up to the Tirpitz story, Andy found himself on holiday in Norway some time later, and visiting Altenfjord. He met a man who, along with some of his friends, had been forced to carry supplies to the Tirpitz in their small boat. Reluctant to assist their German enemies, the boys rebelled. They jumped over the side of their boat and swam for the shore. His friends were shot, but the boy got away and made for his grandmother’s house up on mountainside. He took Andy down to the fjord and showed him the bollard to which the Tirpitz’s stern-rope had been secured. He also showed marks on the hillside where Lancasters had crashed, failing to pull out of their bombing runs.

It is perhaps not surprising that the Tirpitz featured in several aircraft incidents and accidents around Shetland. In March 1942, Halifaxes and Lancasters combined in what turned out to be a disastrous expedition. The ship could not be attacked because it was obscured by low cloud; four planes were shot down, another ran out of fuel and crashed into the sea between Shetland and Orkney. A Halifax, also short of fuel, decided try to land at Sumburgh, but found it shrouded in fog. It seems possible that the crew were preparing to bale out when the plane flew straight into the cliffs of Fitful Head. Because of the weather conditions and the remote location, nobody knew of the crash until bodies were found by crofters checking their sheep. Further searches revealed two more bodies in the cliffs, one hanging from a parachute. RAF personnel and local men risked their lives by being lowered on ropes in an attempt to recover the dead crewmen. This proved impossible and the bodies were covered by stones and left in their graves on Fitful. The site was marked by a wooden cross, later replaced by a memorial stone.

Toab is directly in the flight-path of the north-south runway and it is perhaps surprising that none of the houses were damaged by the many crippled or malfunctioning planes which had to land and take off over their roofs. There was, however, one very close shave. A Blenheim took off on a cold November day without having its wings de-iced. It laboured into the air, caught the Post Office phone wires, but just cleared the houses at Scholland; it demolished the clothes-poles behind The Knowe, ploughed across tattie-holes and slammed head-first into a haystack, just fifty yards from the Nortis houses, leaving a trail of incendiary bombs strewn across the rigs. Andy and Robbie remember their father taking a flask of tea to the unfortunate soldier who had to stand guard over the Blenheim during the cold November night.

People in Toab heard the loud bang when a Beaufighter crashed onto Quendale Farm in 1942. A much closer spectator was Tammy Burgess, on his way home from school. He described how the plane, on a trial run after undergoing repairs, seemed to be making a normal approach to the airfield – but suddenly dipped a wing and dived to the ground. It was snowy weather, but whether that was the cause is uncertain.

Enemy attacks on Sumburgh were infrequent and fairly random. Robbie remembers one day when he was out at the back of the house. His mother Gracie was at the washing-line, hanging out clothes. A plane approached. Robbie took a close look and then said “Yon’s a German plane”. Gracie, never one to panic, laughed and said “Na, boy, hit never is”. At which point the German plane let rip with its machine guns, strafing the airfield. Mother and son retreated quickly.

* * *

By this time, Jimmy had reached Canada. In Halifax, Nova Scotia, they uncrated their Airspeed Oxford aeroplanes, which had been shipped over to provide training for pilots and ground staff. Then they loaded the planes on scows to take them across the water to Dartmouth for assembly.   With the planes now ready, Jimmy flew to Megantic (now Lac-Mégantic) in Quebec, where they re-fuelled.

After an overnight stop in Montreal it was on to Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, where an air training base had been established. Then a further refuelling stop at Medicine Hat in Southern Alberta, and by his 21st birthday, Jimmy, now a corporal, was in the camp at the Calgary airfield in Alberta, where he was to work until 1944.

As often happens, Jimmy’s future beyond the war was determined by pure chance. Picture the scene: Jimmy and two fellow-servicemen are heading into Calgary for the evening. They’re hoping to hitch a lift. From behind them, along the highway, comes a car being driven by learner-driver Beth Nimmo, a young Edmonton woman working for the railway company in Calgary. She stops to give the young RAF men a lift. Later, Jimmy and Beth go to the pictures to see a new Betty Grable film, Song of the Islands. Their relationship develops and they get married at Christmas 1942, in Beth’s parents’ house in Edmonton.

In March 1944, Jimmy was posted back to Britain, to Sleaford in Lincolnshire. In August, Beth followed him, sailing from New York to Liverpool on the Athlone Castle. Jimmy and Beth lived in Sleaford for the next few months, with Jimmy based at Cranwell. In April 1945, though, he was given a compassionate posting to Sumburgh, because his father was seriously ill. The couple travelled to Shetland and Jimmy worked at Sumburgh until the end of the war.

* * *

Date AircraftDutyTargetLostTime
24.02.44Halifax
fs Maddock
air gunner
m/u turret
Schweinfurt7
aircraft
8 hrs
01.03.44Halifax
LW 617
air gunner
m/u turret
Stuttgart1
aircraft
8 hrs
12mins
30.03.44Halifax
LK 764
air gunner
m/u turret
Nüremberg31
aircraft
8 hrs
5mins
22.04.44Halifax
F
air gunner
m/u turret
Dusseldorf16
aircraft
5 hrs
20mins
24.04.44Halifax
F
air gunner
m/u turret
Karlsrühe8
aircraft
6 hrs
35mins
27.04.44Halifax
F
air gunner
m/u turret
Montzen14
aircraft
4 hrs
15mins
27.05.44Halifax
A
air gunner
m/u turret
Bourg-leopold9
aircraft
4 hrs
25mins
07.06.44Halifax
B
air gunner
m/u turret
Paris
(Acheres)
11
aircraft
4 hrs
40mins

Johnny’s sorties into Europe continued. It’s noticeable from his log that the targets moved into France as D-day approached, and then, later in 1944, focused on the launch sites for the lethal flying bombs. Johnny had switched from Lancasters to Halifaxes, but continued to occupy the mid upper turret. He told a story of one of the few times he was moved to the lower turret, and nearly fell out when the canopy opened. As with many airmen, soldiers and seamen who experienced the horror of war at close quarters, Johnny spoke little about the bad times and contented himself with recounting incidents which were either comical or farcical.

* * *

While Jimmy was based at Sumburgh in 1944 a Beaufighter crashed onto the Officers’ Mess at Scatness, tragically killing the crew and a telephone engineer from Lerwick. Jimmy’s younger brother Andy suggested that the cause “was probably engine failure”. This brought a sharp riposte from Jimmy, in defence of all over-worked ground staff.

“Everybody blames the engines – when the fault is usually the stupidity of some damn-fool pilot”. As in many such incidents, it is impossible to know the truth. The official account states that “both engines cut out” after take-off.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that the pilot was doing a victory dive and failed to pull out. Perhaps it illustrates that it wasn’t only aircrew who were under extreme pressure. Ground crew had the huge responsibility of making aircraft safe as well as operational – knowing that lives depended on their skill and dedication.

* * *

1945 brought a mixture of relief and sadness to the Peterson family. Relief that the children had survived the hostilities, sadness and grief at the death, in April, of their father John. The older boys returned to their routine jobs, but Jimmy soon left to return to Canada, and Johnny, after a further spell in the RAF, followed him across the Atlantic. Andy and Robbie became joiners in Lerwick. When they were called up for their National Service, they both went to the RAF, completing the circle.

* * *

Other random memories

•    The boys heard the loud crash as a Mosquito landed on one engine, but overshot and collided with Aitchison’s dyke at the north end of the runway.
•    Andy, helping Gavin Black to bring home the kye, watched from the corner at Nortis as a Warwick landed, collapsed its undercarriage to try to stop, but slid over the edge and into the east sea.
•    Two Spitfires, unaccountably trying to take off from different points on the same runway, collided and caught fire, killing one of the pilots.
•    A Beaufighter came down short of the runway, in an area called The Meadows. It narrowly missed a boy on his way from school to his home at the East Shore. It is suggested that this boy, who has tended to move through life at a leisurely pace, has never moved so fast – before or since.
•    Warwicks carried rescue dinghies slung underneath their fuselages. When one of them crashed into the West Voe, near Jarlshof, another Warwick dropped its dinghy on a parachute. Unfortunately, the parachute acted as a sail, carrying the dinghy away from the crashed plane and onto the rocks.
•    Men and boys standing outside the Toab shop watched in some apprehension as a Hudson made a low approach from the north. It passed so close over them that, to the delight of the boys, the slipstream lifted the caps from the heads of two of the men and sent them spinning up into the air.
•    A strange blue-painted Spitfire appeared at Sumburgh, causing much interest among the young airport-watchers. Unarmed except for a camera, its purpose was to photograph enemy installations and ship movements along the coast of Norway.
•    Four Mosquitos, leaving from a base in mainland Scotland, carried out a successful attack on Gestapo HQ in Oslo. One was shot down and the other three landed at Sumburgh.
•    A crippled Liberator, out of fuel, its landing gear disabled and with holes in its fuselage which were clearly visible from the ground, made a belly-landing and ended up on the grass which later became the football pitch for Ness United and Southend teams.

Sandy Peterson