Extended biography of Pip Tyler

Percy Robert ‘Pip’ Tyler began his military career at the school when he was evacuated in 1940, serving in a local Airforce Cadet Unit. 

Leaving school to work in a bank, he left the ACU to join the Home Guard (St Anne’s-on-Sea Company), along with his father. He joined the Signals Platoon and learnt Morse and Semaphore with ‘lights, buzzers, and flags’. On one occasion, he remembers having to lie on the mudguard of the Platoon’s lorry to operate the manual petrol pump of the engine, after the cam having broken in the engine!

Following a year’s service, he was called up on 5 November 1942 to Gordon Barracks Aberdeen. After six weeks basic training, he was posted to the Reconnaissance Corps Training Depot in Scarborough, where he trained as a Driver/Operator and became a Lance Corporal, teaching Morse code.

In early 1943, he was posted to 1st Airlanding Reconnaissance Squadron and shortly afterwards embarked for Algeria from Liverpool aboard a converted liner The Staffordshire. On arrival he remembers being issued with rather unusual jeeps before travelling to their temporary base at Sousse:

‘After two days I [was] driven down to the docks where we were ‘issued’ with our jeeps, the like of which I has never seen before. After being shown by another driver where the petrol tank was [under the driver's seat], and which of the 3 levers changed gear (!), with a trailer loaded with a motorbike and other bits of equipment we drove back to camp.’

Shortly afterwards, they travelled on to Bone, and then with a Chevrolet 15cwt truck attached to a REME team towing vehicles which had broken down – a role which was not without difficulty: 

‘On one occasion I ‘towed’ from behind, acting as a brake going down the side of a mountain to a vehicle with little brakes.’

Later he was drafted to aerodromes to load and move American WACO ‘Hadrian’ gliders, which had initially been supplied with no crews:

'Driving a jeep towing a WACO glider was fun, but if one went a bit too fast the unloaded glider would take off, and slowing down sufficiently slowly so that the glider landed and did not overrun the towing jeep was quite tricky. One of us always had to sit in the glider pilot’s seat to steer and stop the glider and it could be a bit frightening if one found oneself airborne as the brakes did not work up there!'

Due to the initial shortages of the glider pilots, some men from Recce Squadron were drafted in to assist lead pilots. Fortunately however, more glider pilots soon arrived and they returned to normal duties.

Rations were basic ‘C’ rations, and each group of men would have their own fire to heat water to heat the tins of food. The conditions and rudimentary equipment meant this could be hazardous:

‘On one occasion I was told to relight a fire which consisted of half a two-gallon petrol can filled with sand. Unfortunately I could not see in the bright sunlight that it was already alight, and pouring petrol onto it. [The can from which I was pouring caught fire]. As I threw it away, some of the lighted petrol spilled onto my hose top which caught fire and burned me quite badly.

Although he was ‘rescued’ from hospital the day before he would have risked discharge from the unit, he was frustrated to miss the Sicily invasion. 

Shortly afterwards however, the Squadron took part in the seaborne invasion of Taranto of the East coast of Italy, and Pip embarked with the rest of the Squadron on the USS Boise. His jeep was loaded onboard using the crane usually required to lift the ship's seaplanes. After arrival at Taranto harbour, Pip travelled with the Squadron in support of 1st Airborne Division through Massafra and Mottola, noted wine-growing regions on the East coast. After several months in Italy, he returned with the Squadron to the UK, and their new base in Ruskington for Christmas 1943.

In early 1944, Pip was part of the Squadron troops who retrained at RAF Ringway as Paratroopers (after which the unit became known as the 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron). 

Despite recognition of a battle-harden combat unit, the Recce Sqn men of the course embarked on the same thorough training:

‘[W]e went through all the training, jumping out of various types of dummy aircraft bodies about 6ft off the ground, sliding down wire ropes from 30ft high along some 30ft in length holding onto a pulley wheel landing on the mats (where men frequently broke arms and legs), and being towed by ones mates towards a large puddle trying to get out of a parachute harness before one got soaked.’

After basic training, he progressed to jump training, first from static balloons at about  800ft up:

‘…where one drops vertically for a hundred feet until the chute opens with a loud bang, and prayed the paratroops prayer on the way down. “God bless the WAAF  who packed it [the parachute].”’ 

Later, he parachuted twice from a Dakota. The next morning, on 11 April 1944 the course were to jump from Whitley bombers, using the techniques they had learned on the dummy rigs:

Twelve of us plus a RAF Sgt Instructor, six of us each side of a big hole in the middle of the plane like the dummy we had trained in. Whereas the previous day had been windless, this day was quite breezy. I was number 11 out. [T]he first 10 went ok but I was told later the wind had got up a bit and they had fired a red flare to stop further jumping but the pilot had not seen it as he was turning and I jumped. 

I had no idea anything was wrong but apparently a breeze caught me and I started swinging under the shute. As I neared the ground I thought I was coming in fast forward and prepared myself for a forward landing. Just as I reached the ground I was at the end of a forward swing and got dumped on the ground flat on my back. 

Proper procedure meant I should have got straight up and started packing my chute which I tried to do, but a loud hailer told me to lie down by my parachute and wait for an ambulance.'

He was transferred to Chester Military Hospital and x-rays revealed a crush fracture of his left lumber. As a consequence he had a full torso plaster cast from neck to crotch when Major Freddie Gough came to visit him. His injuries ultimately ended his association with the Squadron, and meant he missed the next 1st Airborne operation to Arnhem in September 1944. He was transferred to Derwen Emergency Medical Centre on 25 April 1944, and stayed there 10 months until he was posted to the RAC Depot in late February 1945.

During the latter stages of his recuperation at Derwen, he remembered assisting the medical nurses in their duties. One duty involved making replica medical casts from used plaster casts removed from deformed parts of the body sent to Derwen to enable their wounds to be studied, working closely with civilians staying there. He also worked as an orderly at a makeshift operating theatre erected in the grounds.

Once recovered and back at the RAC Depot, Pip Tyler did however undertake a further four years in the Army. The RAC and Recce Corps Depots were side-by-side at Catterick camp. Pip was unaware the Recce Corps was being gradually disbanded. He continued to wear his maroon beret and Recce cap badge until posted to an active unit(!)

Soon afterwards he was sent on a Radio Operator Refresher Course and an Instructors Course at Bovington RAC Training Centre. He was eventually promoted to Corporal as a Radio Operator Instructor. When he arrived back at Depot, the first Prisoners of War were arriving:

‘[As they had objected to being retrained] by NCO’s who had spent their entire military careers during the war at being instructors, and had never been in “battle”.

Consequently I got the returned POW’s courses.  We did not work very hard, and there was a lot of reminiscing.  The returned Officer POW’s were even more difficult - from extremes of those who wanted to get back in service to those who wanted a cushy ride until they were demobbed – and who could blame either.’

Pip Tyler continued in this role until May 1946, when he was sent on a temporary assignment to the 60 Special Company Royal Engineers- An amazing outfit know as VISTRE (Visual Inter Services Technical Research Establishment). The Company was tasked with creating the ‘illusion’ of an entire regiment with ‘inflatable’ tanks, aeroplanes and other vehicles which looked exact dummy replicas of real vehicles. Pip was part of a team of radio operators tasked with working a number of radios producing sounds of military equipment to further fool an observing enemy.

He returned to Depot in August. He found himself volunteered for the  newly-reformed Army Education Corps and was sent to their Training Depot at Tunbridge Wells in late-August 1946 as a Sergeant. After three months training he joined a Field Hospital (which coincidentally went to see the film Theirs is the Glory(1946), which included several of Pip’s 1st Airborne Recce friends).

Later he was sent to the London District to assist new Education Corps Sergeants. He was eventually posted to the War Office AE3 Vocational Information Section to help organise vocational training courses, before settling down to select candidates for further education courses, rising to become a Warrant Officer Class II (WO2) in October 1947. Eventually, his low medical rating meant he accepted demobilisation on 28 October 1948, very nearly six after he was called up.

He was hugely proud to have become a Warrant Officer, but more so to have served with 1st Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron and is now the Chairman of the Old Comrades Association. He has attended ceremonies in various locations in this capacity. Chief among these were his visits to Arnhem for the 50th Remembrance Parades, and again at the 60th anniversary when he carried the Association standard at Arnhem Oosterbeek Cemetery:

'But best of all, in 2005,  as one of the 100 Veterans, I carried our Standard on Horse Guards Parade for the 60th Anniversary Victory Parade.'

On a lighter note, Pip featured in an October 1999 episode of the BBC car show Top Gear as a British soldier who drove a jeep during the war:

'How or why they found and chose me out of the thousands who drove jeeps I never found out, but it was quite a thrill, even though my appearance driving a jeep in our local Gunners Park only lasted a couple of minutes.'

Pip Tyler remains a very active member of the veterans community, has been a huge help in recording the history of the Squadron on ParaData.

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