Title: The Penguin’s Progress: Memoirs of a WWII Dispatch Rider for His Majesty’s Royal Air Force
Author: Eric Merry, Aubrey Wynne
A young man sat on Biggin Hill in early 1940, watching an attack on the R.A.F. fighter station. As a German bomber spun out, chased by a British Spitfire, Eric knew what he wanted to do. The day he turned 18, he volunteered at the Air Ministry in Kingsway, London. Raised in a military family, his Marine father was disappointed with his choice. But both father and son served their country with stubborn courage that brought them both back home safely in 1946.
When Eric was passed over for pilot, he was designated an air gunner. When he was later assigned as a dispatch rider, he adopted the mascot of a penguin, the flightless bird. His dogged determination kept him going through countless conflicts and close calls across North Africa and Italy. His amiable character and optimism secured friendships that would last a lifetime. These are the memoirs of Eric Thomas Merry, a dispatch rider for His Majesty’s Air Force.
These accounts are also part of the Imperial War Museum’s archives in London, England. Illustrations and photographs taken during wartime and by Eric are included in the book.
Civilian to Serviceman
We were an assorted group of civilians assembled on the windy parade ground of the R.A.F. depot at Cardington in Bedfordshire to begin the transformation into a crew of uniformed airmen. We started the transformation by going through the old R.101 airship hanger to collect our ill-fitting uniforms, big boots, as well as all the other paraphernalia of a serviceman. Our civilian clothes were then parcelled up and sent home without a covering letter. Heaven alone knows now, what effect that had on my mother!
Cardington was my first introduction to the army hut although the battleship grey lino, in a barrack room, was no stranger to me. Lino so deeply polished that it looked as though the whole floor was a sheet of glass and squeaked as one walked gingerly across it. The coal scuttles with their shiny, dusted and correctly sized pieces of coal that no-one ever burned and the tall cast-iron ebony black round stoves on their white washed surrounds, one at one end of the hut and one at the other, stood like proud sentries.
Drawn up outside the huts, the forty new inmates of the squad were listening to the corporals first list of do’s and don’ts. Behind my back I was idly slipping my china mug from one finger to another and just as the corporal was saying ‘any airman breaking his mug would have to reimburse the Air Council with six pence’, mine went crashing to the ground! Some of the blokes thought it funny but I just felt a bit of an idiot. They introduced metal mugs later, so perhaps I wasn’t the only fool to join the airforce. We then had a group picture taken outside the hut and I proudly sent it home.
Cardington was the initial shoe-horning of civilians into the service life but it was still all very civilized at this stage. The corporal said, “I’ll call your name and last three (of ones service number) and you’ll answer with ‘Sir’. Got it?” Indeed, I should have ‘got it’ because of my long but youthful marine tradition and my familiarity with service numbers, however, this R.A.F. number was one million, three hundred and eighty-one thousand, nine hundred and seventeen, 1381917. I had it written on a piece of paper, and, as I kept saying to myself, ‘My last three are nine hundred and seventeen - nine seventeen’. I came to at the corporal’s exasperated voice, “Come on nine-one-seven Merry, I know you’re there” Oh my God ! I realised it was me. “Sir? “Thank you Mister Merry”. I can still remember how stupid I felt.
The forty of us were allocated a hut and I was elected Head Man because I was the youngest. Seemed logical at the time. Some of them were as old as 25! It took a few hectic days to get used to the very early mornings, especially the cold washes and shaves (it was November of 1940) and the awful smell of the cookhouse and mess hall. We were quickly organised and equipped, and within a few days bundled up by train to Morecambe in Lancashire. As we marched from the railway station through the town, we were counted off into seaside guest houses like refugees; but we were ready and keen for our new experience. The drill squad! This was where we were to learn how to march, and counter-march; this was where we were to learn how to handle a rifle, salute and become proper service men, and this is where I shone because of my life-long association with the Royal Marines, a fact not lost on our drill corporal who used to lean against the seawall while I ‘took the squad.’
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These are the true accounts of a WWII British soldier. They currently reside in the London Imperial War Museum.
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Eric Merry was an English World War II veteran who served in the Royal Air Force from 1940-1946, one year in England as an air gunner and the rest in North Africa and Italy as a dispatch rider. When he returned home, he found a devastated, war-torn England. Through hard work and perseverance, he became an industrial photographer and then a public affairs director for the largest retail milk company in the world. After retiring, he wrote Penguin's Progress, a memoir of his war experiences, for his son and grandson. The book has since been accepted as an archival research document by the Imperial War Museum in London. Merry lived his later years in the United States near Chicago, but visited England often. He died in May 2020 at the age of 97.