Douglas Joss was born in Aberdeen and went to school in Coventry. He joined the RAF when he was 17 years old in 1938 and had a wartime career of three parts. He originally trained as an Aircraft Rigger and was part of the force sent to West Africa to assemble aircraft sent across the Atlantic by the United States. These aircraft were then flown across Africa to support British Forces fighting in North Africa and the Middle East. He was made a Chevalier of the Ordre National de la Legion d’Honneur in 1981 for his service alongside French troops. After several bouts of malaria, he came back to Britain and retrained as a Rear Air Gunner and flew on 32 missions with 626 Squadron out of RAF Wickenby in Lancaster bombers. He was commissioned as a Pilot Officer during this period and wrote a book about his experiences called ‘Peace and War of an Air Gunner’. He was operational for 6 months and during this period, 40 Lancasters were destroyed or went missing. Over the entire duration of the war, 1080 aircrew from No.s 12 and 626 squadrons were lost on operations. After this, he was posted to India and the Far East where he had various roles including PA to an Air Vice Marshall, organising troop entertainments and working with people who had been interned by the Japanese. Following the war, he stayed in the RAF and had many overseas postings, was promoted to Squadron Leader, was awarded the MBE and finished his RAF career as OC of the No.3 Wing of the RAF Apprentice School at RAF Halton. After 32 years service in the RAF, Douglas continued to contribute to his community via various paid and unpaid jobs in his local area including serving as a Magistrate and on the Thames Valley Police Authority.
Douglas has recently died, aged 97.
As a background to this film, which focuses on the first part of his war, the reason that British troops were sent to West Africa is as follows. This piece mentions that the American planes only arrived later on but Sqn Ldr Joss recounts that they were being sent early on in the war.
In June 1940, when France fell to the German invasion, Italy seized the moment to attack British positions in Egypt, Kenya, and Sudan. By the end of March 1941, German Major-General Erwin Rommel’s mechanized troops had driven the British out of Libya and back into Egypt. In late spring, German and Italian aircraft were pummelling Britain’s sea stations in the Mediterranean, making it difficult if not impossible for supply ships to reach British forces in the Middle East. The remaining sea route by which to deliver supplies to Egypt was via Africa’s Cape of Good Hope, but that was a protracted journey of three to four months, a luxury of time that Britain simply did not have.
In desperation, Prime Minister Winston Churchill and his military advisers turned to an underdeveloped, 3,700-mile air route from Takoradi in the British colony of the Gold Coast (now Ghana) to Cairo, Egypt.
As the starting point of the Allied trans-African supply line to Egypt that became officially known as the West African Reinforcement Route (WARR), Takoradi became one of the most important bases for Britain’s Royal Air Force. On September 5, 1940, the first shipment of a dozen Hurricane and Blenheim aircraft fighters in large wooden crates arrived at Takoradi by boat from the United Kingdom, and like many more consignments to come, they were unpacked and then assembled locally to be made airworthy for the flight to Cairo. The six-day journey was undertaken in stages with several rest and refuelling stops that included Lagos, Nigeria; Khartoum, Sudan; and Luxor, Egypt.
The first delivery flight to Cairo left Takoradi on September 20, 1940. Like the flights that were to follow, it was a journey plagued by problems. In the Sahara Desert portion of the route, sand took a severe toll on the aircraft engines. There was no map of the route, and many pilots used ominously burned-out aircraft on the ground as their guide.
In spite of these challenges, between August 1940 and June 1943, over 4,500 British Blenheims, Hurricanes, and Spitfires were assembled at Takoradi and ferried to the Middle East. Between January 1942 and the end of the operation in October 1944, 2,200 Baltimores, Dakotas, and Hudsons arrived from the United States (via the American base at Natal, Brazil, and a mid-Atlantic stop on Ascension Island), and virtually all of them were ferried in similar fashion. There were other final destinations via the Takoradi Route, including India.
Written by Kwei Quartey for the blog Foreign Policy in Focus.
I quickly volunteered and I soon wished I hadn’t because we were sent, would you believe it, to a hospital in London, to get injections against Yellow Fever. We didn’t know where we were going except that it was obviously somewhere in the tropics. We went, I was matched with a number of people, up on the, just south of Glasgow, where we was to join a troop ship there, but the name I can’t remember. Yes I can, it was the Warwick Castle, it was converted into a troop ship. Half the passengers were people going back home to South Africa to get away from the war and rest of us. We were given a lecture after a while and we were told what we were going to do and this was most interesting. We were told although America was not in the war then, we were told that they were going to send fighter aircraft to us in packing cases and we, we being all airmen of a technical nature, I was a flight rigger, we were going to assemble them at Takoradi and then the pilots allocated were going to fly across to the Middle East to booster up Monty and his lot over there.
On the troop ship there was an amusing incident when we didn’t know where we were going but we were amassed and given a talk by an RAF officer who I don’t know, who said ‘There is one thing that I have got to tell you about this. We have, whatever is the word, taken charge of a school which is on a hill overlooking the harbour at Takoradi. He says that this is a different thing as you are going to have to make your own beds and we thought that we have made our own beds for all our previous service wherever we were. Until we reached this school and there was a pile of planks of wood, chicken wire, hammer and nails and they said ‘get on and make yourself a bed’. Which we did – these lasted us for, they were a bit primitive, for about another three or four weeks when another troop ship turned up and had a supply of service beds which were not very pretty anyway but they were more useful but we had to fix rods at the side to drape anti malaria nets around us to keep the mosquitoes away and we were issued with leather boots which I wished I had kept, they were very nice, because the mosquitoes would attack you, at your ankles there at that time and malaria was very common. I did in fact in my time in Takoradi have two doses of malaria which weren’t very nice at all. On the troop ship I heard that my home town of Coventry had been bombed, but there I was at sea, wondering if my family was alive or dead and I couldn’t get any information but I did go to a service padre and ask if he could help at all. He was allowed to signal Coventry Police headquarters who went and called on my family’s address and it came back with a message, a signal back to the troop ship saying ‘tell Joss not to worry. His family are alright. His mother got a little bit injured, but it is nothing very serious’ and that really was a great blessing at that time. Letters home and back took three months. A little bit different from today when you can just pick up a mobile phone and just phone home but that was really distressing. All of us had to wait three months before you got a letter home and back.
Takoradi. We were kept busy. Planes, supplied by America in bits, in packing cases if you can believe it they were. The American ships that delivered them though, made ours look like toys. They were big and powerful, and they lifted these packing cases out and put them on the side at the harbour at Takoradi and I was told at the time that a namesake of mine, being Joss, built the harbour at Takoradi. I couldn’t find out any more about him except than he must have been a relative because he was a Scot and I am a Scot and he was a Joss so that was that. Anyway, these crates were put on trucks and taken down to the airfield into large hangers which had been built before we arrived. The Europeans out there, before we arrived, wore a thing called a heatpad. It was a pad they wore down their back to keep the sun if they were working, to keep the sun off their back and we were issued with these as well. Heatpads, but we got fed up with using these, they got in the way and we despised them. The local British who were living out there before our arrival said we were letting them down because we were going too easy – we were taking dangers that we shouldn’t do to work in that heat which was very very intense for periods. My periods of malaria were alright. They weren’t all that bad. I think I was in hospital for about three weeks. Manned by RAF nursing sisters there and we were very pleased to be served by them. That was very nice.
Literally had to be unnailed you know with spanners and pulled them out and we pitched all this wood out which the locals pinched like mad as it was very useful for them and they were dismantled and bits would come out, almost like a magnificent Meccano set. They would come out, the fuselage might be complete and the main planes were separate and the engines of course would come out quite separately. We were, all the Air Force lads there were all technical in some way. I was a Flight Rigger and my job was on fitting the controls up to the main plane and the tail – that was my job which was pretty straightforward and no bother but they had senior NCOs, Flight Sergeants and the like who would go around and check and decide whether it was airworthy or not to fly to the next place where the first lot would go off and stay at Lagos in Nigeria – that is where they disappeared to and then from then on to the various staging posts across Africa. But I was on single engines which I think were…. I am trying to remember the name of the…. Mohawk. The one that I had was American was a Mohawk and that I do remember. We worked hard when we were there. We worked in hangers getting out of the temperature and they got big fans blowing across the hanger underneath to disturb the air and keep us a bit cool. It wasn’t very nice at all. Still, there we are, it was our war and we had to do it. There was one interesting bit. The resident Europeans, what do they call people when they are living abroad temporarily? Anyway, they would invite us on Sunday, we were invited out for Sunday lunch and they made a thing called a peanut curry which was very good and compared with the food we had been eating, that was a blessing and it was nice to be there. You would spend a day with a European family who had been out there maybe 10, 20 years. Yeah they were very good and we all had a servant. I had, what was his name, I have forgotten his name now…, the lad that looked after me, I have got a photograph somewhere of him standing behind me with a monkey on his shoulder. It was interesting. And one other thing. I was talking to a local lad there and how the conversation got around I don’t know but he was interested in the Scout movement of old Baden Powell. So I said ‘have you got a Scout movement, a Scout troop?’ So he says ‘No’ so I says ‘Well we will start one. I am experienced – I’ll run a Scout troop for you’ and so I did. I started this. I got one or two Europeans contributed money for us to get uniforms and this lad, I appointed him as the Scout Master. He was lovely. I’ve got a photo of him somewhere too but whether or not it is still there now – I don’t know, I shouldn’t think so but he took charge of it and started a Scout Troop and I used to give talks about once a week to them about my experiences with scouting and left them to it. I think old Baden Powell would have been pleased with it if nobody else.
Once again, I volunteered for something else, they said to me that they wanted to send some of you up country, we don’t know where. However I went from there to Nigeria – a place called Maiduguri and then I went to Kano and there, once again they asked for volunteers to move and I quickly put down because I always found that I came out of it well and it was to be stationed where these aircraft that were flying across Africa had to be refuelled at various places, at Maiduguri, Kano and then at a place called Fort Lamy which was manned by the French Foreign Legion at a place south of Lake Chad. There were only four of us who went there, a sergeant, a corporal and two airmen to service whatever aircraft went through and this we did. It was all very interesting because the French were very good to us and they looked after us quite well except I put my foot in it because General de Gaulle came to visit and I wandered around, while a particular tune was being played, taking photographs. A French officer came up to me and told me I was a silly you know, not recognising the French National Anthem. I was so busy taking photographs that I was ignoring this music which was La Marseillaise. I now know it and we were there for quite a while. I got malaria there for the third time. I got two in Takoradi and then I got malaria there and I was treated by a Martinique doctor who was on staff with the French Foreign Legion. He had a most unusual form of treating me. He had a little glass ovals which he heated up and I lay on my stomach and he put these on my back and he told me that these would draw the fever out which believe it or not they did. They were very hot and they soaked the fever out of my back and I was back on with Takoradi.
Now then there was one incident there one day. I heard a lot of noise and shouting and I saw a Legionnaire – a French Legionnaire, chasing a little Arab boy and kicking him with his big boots and stamping on him. I picked up a bit of wood and went across and hit the Legionnaire on the head as I didn’t like to see him stamping on the little boy and I was then arrested by them and put in a hut on my own. I don’t know what was going to happen at all because I was put in with Italian prisoners of war. My sergeant had gone back on to Maiduguri from where we came after Takoradi. He said ‘what are we going to do with Joss stuck in a prison’? Anyway they had a French speaking Captain Mercer there at Maiduguri who came up and got me out of prison there. They said ‘providing you take him back home or take him away, you can have him straight away’ and the French gave me back to my own Air Force. After I went back to Maiduguri. I was…. the malaria stuck with me for a bit so instead of working on aircraft I was put in the sickbay to help the doctor whose name was Dr Tatts who was a South African. Army. Anyway he kept me on for a bit until he says ‘you are fairly useless to me. I think you might as well go back home, you are no good here at all’. So I got shipped right back to Lagos and was in time to get on a French troop ship that was on its way to England and that was the end of my African tour.
Note – Fort Lamy is now N’Djamena – the capital city of Chad.