SAC Bill Romer-Ormiston

An Armourer by trade, Bill Ormiston was one of the ‘lucky’ few to sail out to Aden, along with the author, in sparse accommodation aboard HMT Nevasa in April 1962. Based at Khormaksar for the duration of his tour and assigned to the small arms Armoury and the Bomb Dump where he helped prepare and arm 3” rockets and iron bombs, Bill found himself loaned out to all four Hunter units and the Shackleton squadron for varying periods during his tour.

That dreaded Cruise!

“I remember the Bay of Biscay very well and, having thought that I had got away with it for so long by avoiding the sight of soldiers constantly throwing up, the smell finally triggered me off and I succumbed to a serious bout of seasickness. We shared accommodation with the Royal Green Jackets and Royal Marines, some going to Malta while others were heading for the Far East. They were a tough crowd who could not come to terms with the comparative casual discipline of the RAF. In the words of the Duke of Wellington when describing his troops; I don’t know if they frighten the enemy but by God they frighten Me.

We stopped at Malta and went ashore. Walking through those narrow alleys and entering seedy bars was a terrific experience for me. I recall a fight between drunken soldiers and sailors had started down a side alley and started to wander towards it. Fortunately, a couple of experienced guys I was with grabbed my arms and frogmarched me back out of the alley. As we reached the corner, MPs assigned on Land Patrol (both Army and Navy) arrived and just waded into the mêlée wielding their hefty looking batons, just like a bad Hollywood Movie.

At Port Said, we were not allowed ashore but certain traders were allowed on board the ship to set up their stalls, no doubt after a little greasing of the right palms. The haggling was quite intense and I watched as the more experienced old hands used a neat technique which we then adopted. With their system, a note was offered, usually a ten bob note, and the trader allowed to grab it. Without letting go of the note, a generous helping of the trader’s goods were heaped and scooped towards the buyer with his free hand. The trader, deeming ten bob to be insufficient, would try to prevent this with his free hand while still hanging onto the note with the other. At some stage, one or the other would lose their nerve and let go of the note. If it was the trader, he recovered his goods and the buyer kept his note but if it was the buyer, he quickly used both hands to shield and bag the pile. Much abuse was hurled at the escaping buyer as he disappeared below decks.

Work in the Station Armoury

In the station armoury I devised a method of mass production which generated a great deal of initial scepticism and resistance. My colleague and I demonstrated our new process of servicing rifles, sten guns, bren guns and pistols and it worked so well that it was adopted into standard practise. In true forces fashion, this was not just to make Her Majesty’s Forces more efficient, but to give us more time to ourselves. The higher ups took the least line of resistance and let us get on with it.

One of our projects was to take a Mk.2 sten gun (a better made model than the Mk.3) and designate it the ‘armoury sten’. The weapon stripped down and the black finish rubbed off and the steel of the receiver and the bolt polished to a mirror finish. The receiver was then treated with a chemical/heat process to create a gun-metal blue finish (similar to a high quality English shotgun), leaving the bolt in shining silver contrast. Armourers called it blueing. I took a Stanley wood plane and made an exactly copy of the elegant curved wooden hand grip and fitted this to the front receiver of the sten, giving it a 1920s Tommy gun look. It was finished off with a custom stock and looked very smart. Whenever we went on guard duty, we always chose this weapon together with a customised Smith & Wesson .38 pistol. Although the Enfield revolver was a fine pistol, it was ideally suited for use in the desert and would always fire, even when unloved and seldom looked after, but it was not used by us as it being seen as ‘uncool’, to use modern jargon. The S&W on the other hand was a far more temperamental weapon.

The sad loss of a Hunter and its pilot

I hadn’t been with 8 Squadron as an Armourer for more than a few weeks when I was detailed to duty on the Khormaksar firing range. The pilots of the squadron honed their skills with regular practice firing of their cannon and rockets. The Hawker Hunter FGA.9 was armed with a gun pack consisting of four 30mm cannons in the forward fuselage and unguided 3-inch rockets fitted to the underside of the wings. Frequently they were required to provide very close support to ground troops and any errors could have caused blue on blue incidents. Great accuracy was, therefore, required the closer to our troops the Hunter’s fire was directed.

 

The range was a wide and desolate area of desert broken only by the occasional leafless thorn tree.. The heat was incredibly intense and there was seldom a breath of air. The heat danced on the horizon causing mirages and the distant mountains seemed to hover over what appeared to be a shimmering silver lake. This optical illusion would be familiar to all who have served in the deserts of the Middle East. A file of camels could suddenly just disappear only to miraculously reappear, plodding their stately way across the sands.

 

Our Range party consisted of, as I remember it, the Range Safety Officer, our Sergeant and another airman who I seem to remember was nicknamed ‘Ozzie’. Having tested the radio in the Land Rover we received confirmation that two hunters were on their run in. While one aircraft remained in the circuit the other would suddenly appear, almost silently, low and fast, streaking across the desert, the sun flashing momentarily off its canopy. The firing commenced and we were treated to the sight of the sparkle of gun fire from the gun ports as trails of black smoke streamed back along the under-belly. Of course I may be prejudiced but the Hawker Hunter must be one of the most beautiful and elegant aircraft ever built. There followed the sound and sight of the cannon shells impacting the target .The aircraft then lifted her nose and a second later the sound of the aircraft itself would strike us like a great hand, before turning on a wingtip and barrelling up into the sky and rapidly disappearing. Through our binoculars we watched the point of impact and reported the success or otherwise of the attack to the pilot. As can be imagined there was a certain amount of friendly banter but in fact the pilots were held in great esteem by the ground crews. Theirs was a dangerous job and they were well respected.

On this my first duty on the range, I was standing by the Land Rover when Fg Off Martin ‘Cherub’ Webbon sand blasted us with his jet exhaust and then impacted into the ground, regrettably fatally. Martin was known as Cherub due to his choirboy like features and was held in high regard and affection. By nature, while highly professional, the pilots who fly fast jets are adventurous risk-takers. Cherub’s range scores were consistently high because of a technique he had developed of his own. He flew lower and decreased his angle of attack relative to the target, allowing a greater percentage of his rounds to pass through the target with less waste on the over and under shoot, giving him a higher than average score rate. This of course was more dangerous but that was the nature of ground attack. He was consistently warned about his low flying and his response was always ‘incorrect altimeter reading’.

He requested a low flyby to allow both him and us to estimate his height. As he gently floated towards us, the undercarriage and flaps were lowered. As he approached the range officer’s post, he turned his aircraft, XE600, suddenly as if to hose us down with the jet blast. The Hunter began to crab slightly sideways and as the jet pipe slewed towards us, the air was filled with intense heat and the overpowering smell of Avgas. Sand and hot air swept across us and for a moment we actually looked into the jet pipe and could see the fierce flame deep within. As I was standing against the Land Rover, I threw myself across the front seats to avoid the debris hurtling towards me. Sadly, Martin’s aircraft had lost too much air speed and even though he applied full power, the aircraft was slow to respond. Raising myself upright, I saw her wings rock as if feeling the air and the nose rose gently skywards. The tail seemed to slide away from her and the engine spooled up, rapidly screaming to a crescendo. She was now vertical but virtually hanging in the air. Slowly, so slowly she made a little altitude before gently, as if giving up the fight, rolling over and impacting nose first, almost vertically into the ground. For one bizarre moment she appeared to actually enter the ground with the aircraft disappearing as if behind an object. As the wing roots disappeared there was an explosion up the length of the aircraft and she fell back against the ground like a wounded bird .The next second we were running towards the aircraft. The explosion had not been devastating and something, a sort of vain hope made us hope that Cherub could have survived. I remember running and jumping over pieces of wreckage as we covered half the fifty yards to the aircraft in a matter of seconds. Then the ammunition started to discharge in all directions and burning fuel splashed out across the sand, followed by a second explosion. The Sergeant, who was alongside us, shouted for us to stop. Ozzie and I could not accept that Cherub could be dead and the Sergeant, older and experienced had to physically restrain us from advancing further towards the wreckage. I was just 19 years old.”

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