Life in 39 Squadron was pleasant. We stood by in the evenings unless on leave, and were required to fly only two or three times a week on exercises and routine patrols, usually involving landing at night. I’d become good chums with Tubby Chilton and Billy Leefe Robinson. That was a difference. On Home Establishment, one learned and used the Christian names of one’s squadron mates. At the front it was unusual, except with very close friends and then usually in private. I suppose it was a public school thing, or perhaps it was simply a way to maintain a degree of distance from mates who might not be there at breakfast the next day.
In any event, it wasn’t too difficult to get away. I learned from Billy the art of planning cross-country trips that required a brief touch-down near a large manor house. RFC pilots were much sought after as guests, and this was a ripping way to enjoy a fine tea before heading home to Hounslow. And Billy was corresponding with two very attractive young ladies whom he’d met by landing near their homes.
Tubby, on the other hand, was motoring mad and the two of us pitched in (I did more than my share) to buy a second-hand 10 hp Singer which we overhauled with a great deal of help from Sergeant Buckle, my lead AM. We split the driving and let Sergeant Buckle use the car once a week. On the afternoon of Saturday, 29 April we received permission to head into town as long as we were back by midnight. Tubby wanted to take in the new show The Bing Boys are Here at the Alhambra. I had other plans. He dropped me off by Charing Cross Station and we promised to meet there at 10:30 that evening.
Even in its drab wartime clothing London was thrilling. Woman took tickets on the omnibuses and even drove some of the taxis. Ambulances lined in front of the station awaiting their tragic cargo from the arriving trains and a banner outside Charing Cross Hospital bade “Quiet for the Wounded.” Advertisements proclaimed the virtues of Baker’s Tobacco and Perrier Water and Schweppes. I strolled down to Victoria Embankment and paused outside the Hotel Cecil. This was RFC Headquarters. I lit a cigarette and tried to form a plan. Should I simply inquire why in God’s name I’d been pulled back from France three months early? If I was not speaking with the right person, they’d show me the door and tell me not to return. I needed some better approach, so I heading up to the Strand and made for the font of all RFC knowledge, Jimmy the bartender at the Savoy Bar.
Hotel Cecil (left) and the back of the Savoy (right), view from Waterloo Bridge.
The bar was loud and welcoming, full of officers, nearly all RFC, and a captain was playing “Boiled Beef and Carrots” on the piano. I sat at the bar and asked Jimmy for a Manhattan cocktail. “Right, sir, coming up,” he replied with a smile.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Would you have any Canadian whisky by chance?”
Jimmy grinned. “I should have known it by your accent, sir. As it happens, we’ve brought some in to keep all the Canadians happy.” To my amazement, he took from the shelf a bottle of Collins Yukon Gold.
We fell into conversation and I promised him a case of whisky would be delivered directly to him for his trouble. He was unduly impressed to find a distillery owner in uniform, and such a young one. We carried on a lengthy conversation between interruptions as he flawlessly checked on his customers and filled their requests, while taking larger table orders from two waiters. The man was a miracle of drink-mixing efficiency.
“Jimmy, I need your help,” I said at last. “I’ve been recalled from France for Home Defence duty far earlier than is normal. Someone has leaned on my higher command without my wanting it and I need to know who it is. Do you know anyone that comes in here that I should speak with about this?” He raised a finger and began to crown a serving tray with glasses of all shapes and liquor of all colours before giving a subtle nod to the passing waiter that all was ready. After several minutes he returned with another Manhattan.
“Thank you in advance for the whisky, sir.”
“I’ll need to think a while and perhaps make some discreet inquiries before I can get an answer for you,” Jimmy said. “Are you staying in the city?” I explained I was at Hounslow, but promised to come back in a few days as soon as I could get permission.
“I’m off work Thursday, but any other day would be fine, sir.” I had not yet visited Mum and Dorothy and meant to do so at the first chance, but I would have to come back to see Jimmy first. I thanked him profusely and headed back out into the night.