Working Lives

In the Air Force, the SOE and the police force (1939-1960s)

Location: London, Europe

Toni had an adventurous life, starting in the Air Force in the Second World War, drafted into the Special Operations Executive, being shot down, and then as a London police officer.

First Job

My first job was a bit funny really – I went for an interview to Sainsbury’s because my mother knew old Mrs. Sainsbury so that’s going back somewhere to the First World War. When I had the interview, it turned out that I was going to have to fill up sugar bags for a whole year. I felt very let down because I thought, ‘Here I am, studied for something better and I’m going to fill up sugar bags.’ So, I said no thank you to that job. I came out of Sainsbury’s and I stood looking around me and dead opposite was Industrial House. I thought, ‘I’ll go and have a look what’s going on there’. I walked in and they said ‘oh come right in.’ I was a bit of a sucker because in those days we weren’t as wise as you people. They said, ‘what would you like to do?’ And I said ‘I don’t know. I don’t really know what I’m doing here to start with except that I’ve come in here to look around to see if there’s any clerking jobs or something like that until I find out what I want to do. I’m interested in medicine.’ Well the war was coming and so they said they needed me now.  So, on the 6th October 1939 I signed the Alliance and I became Royal Air Force.

Getting recruited

Then I was down at Uxbridge, which was a medical centre at the time, and after a fortnight I thought ‘blow this for a game of soldiers.’ They used to have what they called DRO’s where you could find jobs going within the Air Force and they said, ‘anybody that speaks languages interested?’ My mother had been in France before the First World War and she was going to train to be a chef, and she taught me French and I took Latin at school. So, they said to me, ‘Right, we’ll let you know.’ And I had to sign forms as usual. It was about a month or two later that I got a letter saying to go to London. It was very odd because just to the side of Westminster Abbey there were very tall houses. I knocked at the door and there was this door in the chimney, and they took me into this room where there were three men. They asked me questions about my education and one thing and another and about my languages and they said, ‘What we want is what you would call today a street wise kid.’ I was a street wise kid. And they said, ‘You’ll hear from us again.’ In a couple of months time I did get a letter telling me to report to the training camp. I still didn’t know what I was going to be trained for and it turned out it was for SOE (Special Operations Executive), a spy. You went into the camp and you were given a number straight away. Then your name didn’t exist anymore. Then I went through a lot of training. You wouldn’t be interested because I’m not supposed to tell you that anyhow, and at the end of it I was sent out to France to a place called Metz. That’s right at the top of France on the borders.

I worked in Metz for a while and I was caught, and eventually I was sent to Auschwitz. And I got out. At least I was worth more money than I am today. I heard they paid thirty thousand pieces of gold for me. Eventually, when my wounds were all healed up, because I was in a terrible mess, they said to me ‘we’ll give you a job in the office for a while.’I’d been there about a year and it was just at the time of the war ending, they said ‘would you do another job for us just one last time’… Mugsy says yes. We went over, did what we had to do, and when we were coming back, the plane crashed into the Grampian Mountains and I was the only survivor. So, I don’t know whether it’s ‘the Devil looks after his own’ or what!

Other Aircraft Duties in the Air Force

Then, I didn’t know what I was going to be doing. The Air Force sent me to train on flight simulators. And they gave me my own flight simulator and I trained people to sort of fly. What I didn‘t know was that every time you walked up and down you’d hear, swish, swish, swish and I thought, ‘well that’s water where they’ve been cleaning the tanks out. ‘I’m sitting at the back telling these girls what to do and the pilot, a friend, came along and said ‘Are you wanting to meet your maker?’ I said, ‘What’s it to you?’ and he replied, ‘Because you’re sitting on petrol that hasn’t been cleaned out!’.

So, then I was given another job to do with aircraft and I thought what else can I do in an aircraft and Air Force? There were some interesting things and one of them was paint. There was an aircraft paint and when it was sprayed on the plane became invisible. You’ve probably heard of the pilot Gary Powers, he flew into Russian territory and they couldn’t detect him at all because this paint made him invisible (not visible on radar). I know it sounds absolutely crazy, but that’s what it did. So, I did that for a piece.

A copper in the City of London

When I came home, I thought I’m going to have a real change of life. I found that if I went for a job and told them about the various medical conditions I had, having bits and pieces knocked off me, they didn’t want to know. You see, I was issued with a green card. You had a green card in those days. So, I thought to myself ‘to hell with this!’. I’ve still got that green card as a memento. But I then decided I was going to join the police force, and I went to the City of London. I thought I’d never have a chance at all because they are such a superior police force. I did the tests and passed and became a fully-fledged copper. It was most interesting because in the City of London if you went out of your way to get to know the keepers of old churches and people like that, once they got used to you, they’d take you to places where the public never went. I picked up an awful lot of knowledge, and on a nasty day I’d be on my beat and could go back into the church and have a cup of tea and a sandwich and what have you. I’d sit and talk and go on and knock a few people off who shouldn’t be where they should be.

Then I thought there was something more I could possibly do. They put me on guard at the Lord Mayor’s House. That was most odd, especially on a Friday. The Lord Mayor of London near a synagogue! There was a series of notices ‘Mustn’t park here. This is going to happen to you if you park here.’ And I thought, ‘what do I do?’ It’s the holy day, and I’ve got to say ‘Go on you can’t park here, clear off. Go somewhere else.’ At that time London hadn’t started to be rebuilt after the Blitz so there was a big area where all the wild cats used to go, and I used to go and look at the cats and talk to them and gradually the people would come out of the synagogue and then I’d get into trouble with the people who weren’t Jewish because of parking! I used to say ‘Right, shut it! These people are going home now. What you do afterwards, you others, is up to you. So be quiet and let’s all live in peace.’ So, I went back to my cats and sat and watched them.

And I was given another job in the police force. And I didn’t care for it very much. It was sort of looking after the ‘pros’ for want of a better word. As far as I was concerned, I didn’t mind them. And one day, I think this was extremely funny, because this lady came up to me, she was all dressed up, beautiful dress, and she had a little dog. And I said ‘ Excuse me Madam, is that your car there?’ A beautiful car. ‘Yes’ she said. ‘Will you move it?’ I said, because if you don’t, I’m going to have to take it in.’ ‘Oh dear,’ she said, ‘I’m so sorry.’ and we chatted for a while and she said, ‘I’ll take the dog in and I’ll be moving.’ And she said ‘By the way, any time you’re on this beat just go round the back. I’ll tell my maid and she’ll give you something to eat and on a cold day she’ll look after you’

And it wasn’t until about six months later that I said to this maid ‘very nice  gaff this.’ And she said ‘Yes, don’t you know what Madam does for a living?’  I said, ‘Whatever it is it pays well.’ and she said, ‘She’s a first-class entertainer.’ That’s what she described her as. And she said, ‘She only works at night and she works through a company or for a certain person and for the people who are coming into London, business men and that, they throw a kind of dinner and a party, and the rest I’ll leave to your imagination’. For that they got five or six hundred pound or a thousand or whatsoever. I found that so interesting because she was so nice and once I stood holding the dog for her while on duty. I don’t know what she was up to but there you are.

Then I decided I was going to move. So, I moved back to London and I joined the Met. I didn’t care for that very much. Too rough for me. So, I thought it myself, ‘I’ve got to find something to do. ‘ And I decided that I would go ‘walkabout’ and I went to Spain and to Norway and places like that. I enjoyed myself, but I found there wasn’t the sort of excitement I was used to. And I just wanted to make life more interesting. And then unfortunately all my injuries caught up with me. And so, I’ve been spending most of my time in and out of hospital. The treatment probably isn’t interesting to you because the interesting parts are non-disclosable

The days I enjoyed were when I first went to Scotland to be trained because everybody was friendly, and you never knew when you’d meet again. The friendship was terrific, and it still is in the Air Force. And I loved every bit of my Air Force life. I think part of my life as you have it now had been taken from me because there was a war.

I was brought back into the service when the Cold War started. And they said ‘Your job will be observing’ and I was put on the Berlin Wall and I had to go from Check Point Charlie to right at the other end, and the idea was because the Russians and Germans made a nuisance of themselves, if you stopped your car and got out they’d nick you and you could disappear or anything could happen. So, my job was just going back and forward. And I thought there must be a bit more to it than this. I found that by getting to know the Commissars, because wherever you have a camp near the border line you always had a Commissar, and I just made friends with them and I used to trade old sweaters for a bottle of drink. To me that was funny and it made it more interesting. And going along the line they wouldn’t speak to you or anything, you wouldn’t know each other and a couple of days later you’d see the same people, stop and trade, on your way again. So that was the last time I did. And then I came out.

You’ll have to forgive me not being able to remember very well because of my injuries I had. I think that going on to live as a normal human being was very difficult and that to see people who had come up behind me who were quite different sent back into the Air Force, it was a different Air Force. Like we had to have our hair cut two inches above our collar. Now I saw people with their hair down here. The first time I was out with another officer I said ‘That airman should get a haircut’ and he said ‘You can’t say that.’ And I said, ‘Yes I can, I’m an officer.’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t dare to have my hair as long as that’. ‘Oh no’ he said, ‘It’s a different Air Force now’. And then I realised that it wasn’t the life that I would have wanted again. But I get involved with all sorts of things like going out on medal occasions. You’ve got so many ‘gongs’ that’s what you call them. You go to places and you meet people. That’s what I begin to like now. I meet so many other people and different nations and I think to myself what the heck are we doing fighting each other? Why can’t we all live in peace? And then I sit back, there are some times I don’t get much sleep with the pain that I have, and I think what did I go through all that war, and the thousands that were killed, and here we are fighting the same thing all over again? And to me that doesn’t make sense. That’s all I can think of. I know really that’s not interesting to you what I’ve said to you because it’s all really to do with my war, and the life from there, from 1939 to the 1950s or 60s which was all Royal Air Force so really I don’t have much of another life. You two are going out into the world and I hope you enjoy it because that’s the world I hope to have left behind for you. That’s all I can say about it.

The Air Force was changing, and I’ve got to change with it, and I didn’t know if I could do it. But I did it for a while and in between I kept on being called back as a reserve. And it’s funny, because when I went up to the Air Ministry, as I thought I’m going to get more money for my pension, but I didn’t. They gave me a thorough medical and he said, ‘go next door and there will be your papers’ and it was a week’s notice to go back in. I said. ‘I’m not Grade 1, all these injuries I’ve got, and you expect me to go back in again?’ And they said ‘yes, we need you’. And I asked, what about all the drugs I have to take for pain and stuff? … ‘Oh, they’ll be left in your drawer’ they said. This was funny because I go to unlock my locker, I thought I was getting low on drugs, and I go to the drawer and there they were. The thieving … have been in my locker! When I say drugs it wasn’t the hard stuff; it was for the pain. I think that’s what changed me to come out and try something else. Because as you can gather when I cam out the Air Force and then I went on to flight simulation it all had something to do with the Air Force, as if I was being drawn back in all the time. And then they kept calling me back to go various places. And then I found out that I’m doing the job I did in the war, poking my nose where it shouldn’t be, and I thought what the heck am I doing here? So, I thought, right I’ll go and join the Police Force. The thing was I had a medical history I couldn’t talk about. And they took me, and I had a wonderful time really because in the City of London you get all the markets, Billingsgate before they changed it. And I was given my new great coat and I was told, ‘here you are, this is your beat. Hang your coat up there, and just keep on walking around to see everything’s cool’. And then came my lunch time and I thought right, pick up my coat and I’m walking along and there’s a stench of fish. I got back to base and I put my coat over the desk and suddenly all these fish heads and bit and pieces, sewn up my sleeves here and up to there. It was just the joke the fishmongers used to do to the green ones. They’d put these old fish heads all in my brand new coat and all these old fish heads had stuck all about the place.  But you got used to playing the game. And I thought right, I’ll get you the next time I’m out. And I went and took the bung out of one of their eel barrows and it was Sunday and the people were yelling and they weren’t little ones they were big eels. And I thought, that will teach you. You go through all sorts of things like that. And they just said we know who did it, but we can’t prove it. And while I was doing that, I was pulling someone else’s fish off something else.

When you’re in the City of London there are certain laws that go back to ancient times. And I’d bought some meat and they said ‘Did you pay for that?’ and I said ‘Of course I paid for it’ ‘Oh you get that free.’ and if you get to Aldwych there’s a shop there that supplies all the chickens and what have you to the Guildhall banqueting hall.  And there was a law laid down by some mayor that only the breasts were to be used. And they said, where do the legs go, and all that. And we used to go back and there were great big bags of chicken legs. And on this particular day I had my local beat and I was up near St Paul’s and I put it into one of the blue police boxes you see, and I forgot, and it was a hot day. And when I returned on the following Monday the sergeant said to me ‘I’ve had complaints about one of the boxes stinking. When we opened it there was a lump of meat in it and it was alive with maggots.’ And I said, ‘Who could have done that?’ and he said ‘It was your beat and you were last on!’

Toni (b. 1921) talking to students at Fakenham College with WISEArchive on 12th October 2007.

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