James Shaw III

Royal Air Force Career

18 July 1940 - 15 April 1946


My father, James Shaw, had been an apprentice motor mechanic in Edinburgh and was given day-release to study mechanical engineering at Heriot-Watt College. Having obtained his Ordinary National Diploma (OND), studying by day-release, his employer was reluctant to allow him time off for further studies. At first he got around that by attending night-classes but eventully decided a better solution would be to volunteer to join the RAF as an aircraft mechanic.

He was enlisted at RAF Padgate, near Warrington, for basic training and consideration as aircrafthand, flight mechanic or flight rigger on 18 July 1940.

On 27 August 1940 he was sent to RAF Blackpool (Squires Gate) for a six-month Flight Mechanics course followed by a two-month fitter's course.

Canada - Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

In 1941 he was sent overseas for the first time to RAF Dartmouth (now RCAF Shearwater), near Halifax, Nova Scotia. to support 11 Squadron RCAF. This squadron flew Lockheed Huson aircraft for Coastal Command. During this period he worked on their Pratt & Whitney R-1830 Twin Wasps, a two-row, 14-cylinder, radial engine.

New engines would arrive for a bench testing. One particular batch experienced early failures. It turned out that the feed and return for the lubrication oil had been reversed. In theory this should not have been possible as the couplings to the engine block were of different sizes. However the tapped holes in the engine block were the same size, allowing the couplings to be fitted in the wrong holes, defeating the purpose of the design.

[He told this story many times as it illustrates an important principle, 'if things can go wrong then they will', also far too often we sign the 'right' way to do things rather than providing warnings against the 'wrong' way. For instance in the UK one-way streets have arrow signs pointing the 'right' way, but beyond the 'No Entry' sign nothing to alert anyone driving the wrong way].

Canada - Debert, Nova Scotia

By January 1941 he had been transferred to 31 Operational Training Unit, RAF Debert, about 67 miles (107 km) to the north. In comparison to Dartmouth, Debert was out in the wilds, the nearest town of any size being Truro, 14 miles (22 km) to the east.

While at Debert he worked with Norman Stewart Bedford, Leslie Layfield and Chris Crossthwaite, (who ran a pub called "Bird in Hand" after the war).

RAF leading aircraftman with small dog
LAC James Shaw 1010811 and Teddy

The local population could be supportive of these 'boys away from home' and the Sharp family of New Glasgow offered their friendship. Mr Sharp was a monumental mason and lived across the road from the Riverside cemetry. He owned an 'International' D2 pick-up truck, which must have been of especial interest, given my father's earlier apprenticeship with an 'International' dealer in Edinburgh. Mr and Mrs Sharp had three adult daughters, 'Ina', Daisy and Eleanor, the later two living at home. They had a dog called Teddy. parents. Daisy wrote many letters both to my father and his family back in Scotland. The Sharps also sent some food parcels to Scotland too. (Mr and Mrs Sharp were both immigrants from Scotland). Eleanor continued to live in the same house until 2015 so it is a pity that my father never found his way back to Nova Scotia.

family group and dog inside house
The Sharp Family

While at Debert my father was promoted first to Leading Aircraftman (LAC), in September 1941 and then to Corporal in July 1942.

Old open-topped car in snow-covered yard
1923-24 Model 'T' Ford, (Union Jack and 'Be The Ensign' in English & French between the doors)

He held a Novia Scotia driving licence and letters from Daisy Sharp mention the purchase of a car and its expected 'three-point landing' in New Glasgow. It isn't known whether it was this Model 'T' or whether it had just attracted his interest. The various legends, 'No Overhead', 'White Rose', 'Pray As You Enter', 'This Is Like Driving On A Cloud', 'Be The Ensign', 'Why Walk' and the age of the car, (nearly twenty years old), suggest youthful ownership.

Two airmen in uniform with a civilan man leaning on an Oldsmobile car
Chris Crossthwaite, Jim Shaw and Mr Hambleton (but probably not his car!)

Friendships weren't limited to Nova Scotia. Perhaps as a result of being friends with RCAF personnel he got to know the Hambleton family in Ottawa. They had a son, Doug, probably in his twenties, and daughters, Isabel, Shirley and youngster, Margaret. In the winter of 1941-42 my father, Chris Crossthwaite and the Hambletons visited the Canadian and American falls at Niagara.

During his stay in Canada my father had lost his fiancée back home but gained a pair of rubber over-shoes, brown leather ice skates and the habit of eating with just a fork held in his dominant hand. He appears to have left behind a small residue in a Post Office account and $25 with Daisy. She was expecting to be acting as a third-party to receive the proceeds of selling the car but said that never happened. Perhaps other arrangements were made or the buyer renaged on the deal? Once the war was over and if nothing else had intervened it is quite likely he would have strongly considered emmigrating to Canada.

In 1943 my father returned to the UK onboard RMS Queen Elizabeth. The ship was un-escorted and relied on her speed and 'zig-zagging' to avoid attack by U-boats. Safely home he attended a two-month Air-Sea rescue course at RAF Hawkinge, near Folkstone, working on Spifires, Walruss and Lysander aircraft for 277 Squadron RAF.

This was followed by a two-month instructor's course at RAF Cosford. He then served as an instructor at RAF Innsworth for six months.


On 7 April 1944 he joined 140 Squadron at RAF Hartford Bridge, (now Blackbushe airport, Hampshire), shortly moving to RAF Northolt, outside London.

140 Squadron had been tasked with carrying out photo-reconnaissance to support the planning of the D-Day landings. Originally employing Spitfires, by the time of the invasion they were only flying the Mosquito. The squadron formed part of 34 Wing, along with 16 Squadron, which took over all the Spitfire flying and 69 Squadron that used the Wellington.

RAF groundcrew in front of dispersal hut
John Seward, [Instrument Cpl.], Frank Hodge, Bill Tawse, John Batchelor and Sgt. Morris at dispersal, Melsbroek

Following D-Day, in September 1944 the squadron moved to Balleroy and then Amiens-Glisy in France. At the end of that month they moved to Melsbroek, Belgium for five months.

Belgium - Melsbroek, Brussels

family group with RAF airman
Edouard Strybos-Walgraef, Cyrille, Germaine, Jim Shaw and Henri at Brussels Botanical Gardens

During that period my father made friends with the Strybos-Walgraef family, Edouard, Germaine, Henri and Cyrille, who lived adjacent to the airfield in Steenokkerzeel. They would do his washing in exchange for soap and cigarettes and from time-to-time provide a proper bath! There was an exchange of letters after the war up until at least 1948. In typical fashion my father visited them, out of the blue, many years later while testing cars in Europe.

woman with two men
The Strybos-Walgraefs with Jim Shaw (about 1970)

Another remembered interaction with 'the locals' was buying bunches of grapes, traded through the perimeter fence.

'Operation Bodenplatte'

Melsbroek, along with seventeen other forward Allied airfields came under attack in the early hours of 1 January 1945. Among the squadrons of 34 Wing based there 69 Squadron suffered the loss of five ground crew, with twenty-five being injured. 16 and 140 Squadrons fortunately lost no personnel in the attack. One Mosquito crew might have been a casualty but the for the navigator forgetting his pipe and returning to the aircrew accomodation to fetch it. My father was doubly lucky, a few days before one of 140 Squadron aircraft had suffered engine problems and had landed at Amiens. My father had been despatched there to make repairs and flew back the day after the attack in the nose of the repaired Mosquito.

From February 1945 until August 1945 the squadron was based at Eindhoven in Holland. Two daylight sorties were carried out over the Skagerak in search of enemy shipping on 7 May 1945 and were claimed to be the last operational sorties carried out by 2nd Tactical Air Force in Europe.

After the cease-fire ground crew were offered flights 'over the more devasted parts of Germany', although my father didn't recall having done so.

Dispersal - Acklington and Colerne

On the 12 July 1945 the ground crew were flow to RAF Acklington, Northumberland to be re-mustered. 140 Squadron was formally disbanded at Fersfield, Suffolk on 10 November 1945 but by that time my father had been posted to 39 Maintenance Unit at RAF Colerne, tasked with mothballing Lancaster aircraft . It was during that period at Colerne that my father first met my mother who was working as a nurse, 35 miles (56 km) to the west at Clevdon. Finally in April 1946 he was demobbed and he returned to live in Edinburgh.

For his service he was awarded the 1939-1945 Star, the France and Germany Star, the Defence Medal and the War Medal 1939-1945.

Some of the casualties of war that invoked strong memories from my father were the loss of popular Squadron Leader Longley, (assumed to be from 'friendly fire' while piloting a Mosquito), and five friends from school or church: Flt. Sgt. John Selby Ross, a Beaufighter pilot; Alec Carr, Medical Corps; John A Watt and Ian Allan, RAF Air Gunners; and Robert Fordie, soldier.

  • John Archibald Watt, d. 30 August 1940, aged 20
  • Robert Jameson Fordie, d. 5 November 1940, aged 20
  • Ian Allan, d. 27 December 1941, aged 21
  • John Selby Ross, d. 7 February 1942
  • Alex Sydney Carr, d. 11 November 1943, aged 23
  • Charles Douglas Nye Longley, d. 2 October 1944, aged 24

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”