Leeds nostalgia: Hard truths about ‘grounded’ soldier

British pilots and Indian trainees stand near yellow biplanes.
British pilots and Indian trainees stand near yellow biplanes.
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This week Leeds author Philip Riley’s book, Hard Calibre, which recounts the wartime experiences of Kenny Butterworth, also from Leeds, is kindly reviewed by Flight Lieutenant M D Wight-Boycott, of 28 (AC) Squadron, RAF Benson.

Hard Calibre is a fascinating book that undoubtedly does the Kenny proud.

On hearing of his old workmate’s death, Phil Riley resolved to complete his unfulfilled promise – to commit Kenny Butterworth’s remarkable memories as a wartime RAF armourer to paper.

Writing in the first person Phil Riley gives a Kenny a voice recalling his adventures. From Kinloss to Kidlington and Cape Town to Burma, Kenny saw and did, a lot. Whilst so much has been written of the escapades of RAF aircrew, Phil Riley proves that the stories of those in supporting trades could be just as colourful.

Hard Calibre is no laborious military account or wartime analysis but a fascinating true story set against the back drop of the Second World War.

It details Kenny’s personal experiences and exploits whilst serving as an armourer in the RAF.

After some time in the UK, Kenny spent three months trying to get to India (with hundreds of others), then a year in the central plains and later in Burma at the height of the Japanese offensive.

Kenny’s story not only gives an insight into the life of an armourer but also opens unique windows into less well-known histories. The book opens to introduce the youthful Kenny and his homelife situation at the outbreak of war. It is then his character and his optimistic flat northern humour that the reader accompanies through many a scrape and a host of occurrences, varying in magnitude and effect.

In training he was rewarded for having a little faith on Sundays at the social club.

Yet on his first posting he managed to shear off the end of his friends finger, while another time a recruit shot himself through the leg.

At another station he witnessed the inauguration of the fatefull B17c aircraft. One is made aware of the austerity of the times with a hint of the dissension that existed at that time.

On one occasion Kenny and his friend were unwittingly set upon by a number of youths in Nottingham. They did escape but Kenny ended up being charged with attempted murder.

Whilst still in the UK, he also saw death and destruction which brought into focus the reality that he and his comrades were living on a knife edge.

Travelling to India via South Africa was certainly no ‘cruise’, partly due to the overcrowding and boredom but essentially due to the fact that there were German submarines trying to sink allied troop ships.

Whilst in Capetown he amazingly managed to discover something of his own father’s past.

Kenny’s time at Jodhpur, Central India encompassed real extremes.

Within 24 hours of his arrival he and all the base personnel were invited to a feast beyond their wildest dreams held within one of the most flamboyant palaces that had just been completed.

The next day they were back to servicing battle worn aircraft.

Just a few weeks later Kenny and his friends witnessed the most lavish wedding celebrations of all time when the Maharaja’s son married a princess from the west.

Just a few days later, Kenny was involved in a horrific aircraft crash after which he needed months of recovery and a spell of recuperation at a Hill Station.

He had only returned to his unit for a matter of days before the whole camp located in the desert was flooded by exceptional monsoons.

He was no decorated hero, but he was certainly no coward and showed that on several occasions. On his posting to Burma he was enthralled by the awesome majesty of the mountain ranges and the jungle-covered valleys and experienced the diseases they held.

At Imphal he spent several weeks with the pressure and desperation of forward line action.

He came face to face with death and somehow survived, but he saw many of his comrades fall in battle and was lucky to live through so many scrapes.

Kenny tells a very colourful story which is easily verified but it was only by extraordinary coincidence that his story got told at all.

His story evokes a real lost world, not just wartime Britain but of colonial India too. It is a tribute not just to Kenny but also his generation as a whole, particularly ground crew.

Hard Calibre, Kenny’s 
Story, is available to buy now online.

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