This process was very much a hit and miss affair. All the graduates were assembled in a hangar and the numbers required for each aircraft type were read out. There were only a few vacancies for Coastal Command, but as this was considered to be a safer option, there was no shortage of volunteers to step forward. People were nearly killed in the crush. To this day I am convinced that all coastal command engineers made either good rugby players or bouncers.
The next stage was a heavy conversion unit, in my case to Stirlings at a Conversion Unit in Suffolk. Crewing up was akin to a 'slave market'. The pilot, navigator, bomb aimer, wireless operator and gunners were already a crew from a Wellington OCU. Once again the hangar was used. The engineers stood in a group waiting for something to happen. Suddenly a pilot stood in front of you and asked if you would like to join his crew (no documentation - he must have just liked the look of you), and then the serious business of conversion training began.
There was very little ground instruction - no simulators, no mock-up aircraft, but straight down to sorting out the gauges and levers as the aircraft lumbered into the sky. The screen engineer occasionally slapped your hand and encouraged you if he was so minded. The heavy conversion unit standard of maintenance was very poor compared to the high quality experienced later on operational squadrons.
In less than three months as a crew, we had an undercarriage malfunction, narrowly escaping a collapse on one side. On another occasion complete brake failure on landing resulted in an over-run into a field beyond the aerodrome. Oil pressure failure on an inner engine, with a loss of auxiliary systems, nearly wrote off the air traffic tower due to a swing on take-off caused by a hydraulic throttle control leaking. Worst of all, a fractured elevator hinged arm on an aircraft signed up as serviceable: if I hadn't noticed it on pre-flight check we would have crashed for sure.
The fuel system on the Stirling relied on gravity feed, and tanks being used in sequence, the cocks for the fuel tanks not required were turned off to prevent inter-tank feeding. On my first cross-country trip a well kept fuel log was essential, gauges being far from accurate. However, late in the trip when the fuel state was crucial, condensation dripping from my oxygen mask due to lack of heating, covered the paper of my log, ruining all my readings. Without upsetting the crew I turned on all the cocks, balance as well, and prayed for continued aileron control and a safe return.
The Stirling experienced ceased when we were posted to Sculthorpe in Norfolk, to join 100 Group Bomber Support and Radio Counter Measures (RCM) operations. There we were introduced to American Flying Fortress crew members, who had arrived with some tatty war-weary aircraft.
Conversion to these Flying Fortresses was carried out on an entirely friendly basis, and some firm friendships established. The local Norfolk farmers were less impressed as during our solo conversion training we regularly "buzzed them up" as they stood on their haystacks. The aircraft all had American markings and any complaints would have been made to a puzzled American 8th Airforce Headquarters.
The engineer on a USAAF Fortress was also the gunner, and two pilots were always carried to make up the crew. We already had a mid-upper gunner who became the top gunner, and as the policy of the RAF was to have only one pilot, the engineer occupied the co-pilot's position.
Although we were not qualified to be pilots we were compelled to spend hours in the old Link Trainer to practice touching down and flying on to the final approach, and we had to be able to relieve the pilot whilst in flight. Some brave souls achieved reasonable but unofficial touch downs on real flights. My pilot actually fainted at altitude on a training flight, when I brought the aircraft down to a lower level, he recovered in time to land; a worrying event that turned out all right. In event of a pilot "snuffing it" we had been advised by the Flight Commander to attempt a "belly flop" at one of the special airfields Manston, Woodbridge or Carnaby.
The engineer's task on the Fortress was the usual requirement of fuel handling, engine setting and monitor temperatures and pressures.
The early Fortresses had hydraulic waste gate controls for the Turbo Superchargers. Sometimes at altitude this would congeal, and then suddenly one or more of the engines would start to roar as the turbine over-sped, swinging the aircraft off course. The engineer would then fight to bring back control by devious manipulation of the cockpit levers. The later Fortress Gs (Mark 3) had electronic control: one simply dialled a number to set all four engines.
One drawback with the Fortress was that its optimum cruising speed was about ten knots slower than the Lancasters and Halifaxes, so in order to keep up higher power than desirable had to be used. This considerably reduced our endurance. The engineer's part in this was the management of a manual mixture lever labelled "auto lean, auto rich". The power settings were a combination of manifold pressure (boost) and rpm - i.e. above a certain figure "auto rich" was required to keep the cylinder and oil temperatures within limits. A chart kept by the engineer recorded the consumption for all engine settings. This figure had to be continually divided into the remaining fuel to establish the endurance figure. The compilation of the engineer's log was therefore quite important. The clerical work in compiling the log was far from easy, the paperwork was on a small board, the control column was in the way, only a little red light could be used, otherwise the pilot's night vision was impaired and too much light was hardly wise over enemy territory. Added to this the heating appeared non-existent so cold hands did not help.
On trip in mid 1944 was to Konigsburg, East Prussia, flying over Sweden at a height of 9000 feet and for a duration of nine hours forty minutes. The aircraft's endurance was stretched to the limit. For such trips the aircraft relied on the use of so-called long-range or Tokyo Tanks: these tanks had no gauges, but relied on cocks being operated around the bomb bay area to turn them on. The fuel from the Tokyo Tanks gravity-fed into the main tanks. There was no indication of fuel flow: all one had to go on was the main tanks appeared to be reducing their usage. All the aircraft on this trip experienced very low tank readings on our return over the North Sea. One engineer kept a small hacksaw in his toolkit and panicked to the degree that he sawed through the hydraulic pipes of the Tokyo operating cocks, as we had been led to believe that pressure held them shut.
One other thing for the engineer to do was keep a good look out: with a hundred or more aircraft with no navigation lights on, all eyes were important.
In conclusion, the Fortress was a much more docile aircraft than the Stirling, more like a four engine Anson from a handling point of view. The low powered, but very reliable 9 cylinder Wright Cyclones were no match for the 12 cylinder Merlins or the 14 cylinder Hercules of British aircraft. However the blower enhanced the performance at altitude.
Our task in RCM operations was to neutralise German defences as much as possible and thus help to cut down our night bomber losses.
We carried devices to jam German Air Interception radar and ground/air communications. These had strange code names such as "Jostle" and "Airborne Cigar". We carried German speaking Wireless Operators as extra signallers. We dropped "Window" to blanket German radar. We carried out spoof raids in which aircraft would head towards a target and hopefully draw the attention of the German defending forces from a genuine raid. We would then drop a "Window" and withdraw under it's cover. We might repeat this manoeuvre several times during one night.
Stirlings of our Group would similarly orbit in wide circles over the North Sea in a manoeuvre known as "Mandril Circle" - also designed to neutralise German radar detection. Bombers would then emerge from behind its cover, hopefully on a course German defences had not anticipated.
During one tour on the Fortress, we were damaged by flak, attacked several times by fighters, and had a minor mid-air collision with an out-going (friendly?) aircraft which damaged our tailplane. The Pilot received the DFC after 39 operations, the Rear Gunner the DFM for shooting down an enemy plane.
We were safer in the Fortress at night because we had four Air Gunners with 0.5 in ammunition. However, our RCM role with "spoof" raids on German cities became more hazardous in early 1945, as the enemy started getting wise to our tactics and aircraft were shot down in the circuit of our final base at Oulton.
Despite these early experiences I went on to "engineer" in many four-engined RAF aircraft until the early 1970's. By then I had just about got the hang of it!!