The recollections of our veterans have always provided incredible first-hand insight into World War II, recalling the day-to-day as much as the pivotal moments. Erskine veteran Joe Parker gave us a glimpse into his life as an aero engineer in our 2016 centenary book, A Century of Care.
After a month of basic training, including “learning how to march properly”, it was off to RAF Drem in East Lothian. “There were about 300 of us and six Spitfires ready to go at any one time. We were split into two groups working day on and day off. We went to bed in our clothes in a hut next to the planes.
As soon as the alarm sounded, you were out on the runway getting the engines started up. Each plane had a seven-man team.” This meant Joe was witness to the first aerial action of the Second World War in British skies, when the Junkers of the Luftwaffe attacked British warships in the Firth of Forth on October 16 1939. Pilots brought down German bombers into the Forth estuary that day. At this time, Joe was aero engineer for Archie McKellar from Paisley, who would become Scotland’s most celebrated Spitfire ace. The two men were already friends from their months together in the AAF. “He was a wee fella, like me (Joe was 5ft 3½ ins). He was very likeable. Always laughing and up to mischief. Some of the other pilots were a bit standoffish but Archie was like one of us. It wasn’t unusual to be asked out for a drink.”
On October 28 Joe waved Archie off on a second mission. Twelve days earlier McKellar had been involved in attacking one of the Junkers off Crail but the kill was given to another of 602’s pilots, George Pinkerton. But this time the glory was all Archie’s. Joe watched his pilot’s return to base. He knew the guns had been fired because the red-painted flaps on the leading edge of its wings had turned black. “The hood came down. Out jumped McKellar pumping his fists and shouting ‘I got ’em!’ Then we all piled into a car and rushed off to see the wreckage.” They found the pitted and holed, swastika-adorned Heinkel 111 lying askew on its crushed undercarriage near the village of Humbie in the Pentland Hills.
“By the time we got there, there was quite a crowd of civilians. The crew came out with their hands up and I spoke with one of them: ‘Why do you want to fight for Hitler?’ I asked him. ‘Why do you want to fight for Churchill?’ he countered in perfect English. I couldn’t believe it. He spoke with a distinctly Scottish accent. It seems his father had been something to do with the diplomatic service and he had spent part of his childhood in Scotland. I remember he called me ‘Comrade’. And as the police took him away to be questioned, he said to me: ‘For me the war is over. For you the war is just beginning.’ After that it was more difficult to think of these men as the enemy. To be honest, they didn’t seem very different from us.”
Joe moved to Erskine in 2009 and to his utter delight found he was to be living in McKellar Ward, named after his old pal Archie, the Spitfire ace. “It was like being reunited.” We were so proud to care for Joe in his later years and hear about his experiences first-hand.