Ron Taft was born at Withington, Manchester on 13th May 1923 and attended Heald Place School in Rusholme, leaving at 14 years old. At 16, the same year that World War II broke out, he became an apprentice electrician (earning 8/- a week) at William Arnold Motor Engineers making aircraft components. It was inevitable that he was registered for conscription at 18 and Ron chose not be designated as working in a reserved occupation but accepted his conscription. Consequently, he received his call up papers in 1942, at 19, and at recruitment office he was given no choice about where he would serve; his electrician’s background resulted in his designation in the ROAC (Royal Army Ordnance Corps) on gun control. (As a result of recommendations of a government enquiry, the Royal Corp of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers [R.E.M.E.] was formed on 1st October 1942 and Ron was transferred to R.E.M.E. later in 1942.)
After the 6 weeks initial training at Markeaton Park, Derby he was sent for specialist training at Southampton University, studying on an electronics course for 2 months, which he recalls as working on separate circuits as de-contextualised learning. He was then sent to North Berwick for a month, required to sign the Official Secrets Act & then saw the whole picture of the circuits he had been working on & was then able to assemble them. He recalls that for 1942 this was advanced technology and was called Radio Location, the forerunner of RADAR.
Initially, in 1943, Ron was sent to Scapa Flow in the Orkney Islands, where (complete with a push bike) he would be called out to repair the 4.5 inch guns which fired every day & consequently required frequent attention when they were out of commission. Because of his electrical training, he specialised in the repair of RADAR controlled searchlights.
He has happy memories of Christmas 1943, when he was asked by his commanding officer: “Would you like to go on a course in Bury?” He queried: “Did you say Berwick?” The officer replied: “I said Bury in Lancashire.” So I got home for Christmas!
In January 1944 American No 10 Predictors were introduced; these were computer-based and had the ability to spot & track faster planes (doing away with mechanical predictors). Equipment needed to be upgraded, and Ron was posted to Brighton, installing the updated equipment along the south coast.
The Normandy Campaign
Ron remembers in the weeks before D-Day there was a build up of troops on the south coast and about a week before D-Day, on a dual carriageway, Canadians pulled up taking both sides of the road with their vehicles & guns;
So we had an idea what was going on. We were on duty all the time; the gunners slept at their guns; there were women at the command post & they slept there. I was on duty all the time and we slept when we could. I think 3 days went by like this and then one morning I was woken up by the roar of the aircraft going over, and we knew that the invasion had started. There were hundreds of planes in the sky – I’ve never seen so many aeroplanes all at once, all going across the Channel, heading out to sea. We were cheering and clapping and later on when it had quietened down we went to have a look at Shoreham harbour, which had been chock-a-block with ships of all description – there wasn’t a single ship in the harbour; all the Canadian troops had gone and we could hear the rumbling of guns across the Channel. At that time I contracted impetigo from the army blankets and finished up in hospital in Shoreham; it was a big hospital which could treat hundreds of patients and I was the only one there. It was ready, waiting for the returning casualties that were expected.
Ron was only in hospital for a week, and when he returned to duty he was placed on duty on guns further along the south coast, installing equipment with guns above Roedean.
One night we were on duty and we saw this plane that we thought was on fire, coming in. It just went over the top, sounding like a motorbike. Nobody fired; we didn’t know what it was, but it must have been the first of the German V-1 buzz bombs that were sent over after D-Day. (Between June 1944 and March 29, 1945, a total of 9,251 V1 flying bombs were launched against England.)
Ron’s recollection of the government’s response to that threat was to move every gun available in Britain (static guns, mobile guns; American guns; 3.7 inch mainly) down to the south coast. The configuration for firing was changed with one RADAR and one predictor and firing 8 guns in an arc of 3 degrees, so that when the V-1s came over, 4 or 5 at a time, there was a chance to knock them out. (Only 2,419 of the 9,251 made it to their intended targets and 1,971 V1’s were shot down by anti-aircraft guns; thus Ron’s contribution was to the protection of the civilian population.)
When talking to fellow veterans, Ron recalled: as time went on we moved along the coast and reached Dover and then moved up on the East coast to a holiday camp near Skegness – we knew where you were on the other side.
Following a week’s embarkation leave, Ron went to the holding camp at Southampton, with a draft number (RDKAF) imprinted in his mind. Embarkation was a tedious trek (starting at Southampton & then having to return and travel from Newhaven) but he eventually landed at Dieppe in October 1944. As he landed, German prisoners were loaded on to the landing craft to be transported to England. It was the first time I’d ever seen a German and they were a dishevelled, disheartened lot of young boys.
It was autumn and every time I smell the autumn leaves I remember that march out of Dieppe.
He joined the guns at Ardennes in time for the action of the Battle of the Bulge (December 16th 1944 – 25th January 1945 and follow through into Germany, up to the Russian zone. Ron remained in the army until March 1947, when on his discharge he returned to William Arnold Motor Engineers as a maintenance electrician & eventually motor electrician.
He went on to the Daily Mail on Deansgate, working on electrical maintenance printing day & night shifts. He finished his career as an electrical overseer and retired in 1988, just as large numbers were being made redundant in the newspaper industry because of the advent of computerisation.