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15 October 2014
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No.8 PFF Group - Mr. Howard Lees Photographic Officer

by bedfordmuseum

From left: Ted Stocker, DSO, A.C. Gerry Bennington, Reg Cann, Harry Hughes, George Hall, Roy Pengilley and Howard Lees

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Mr. Howard Lees, Air Vice Marshal Bennett
Location of story: 
Various airfields
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
01 December 2005

An edited oral history interview with members of 582 No.8 (PFF Group), Little Staughton (officially formed on 1st April 1944) and Mr. Harry Hughes of 692 Squadron, Graveley which was part of the Light Night Striking Force.

Interviewees - Mr. Edward ‘Ted’ Stocker, DSO, Air Commodore Gerry Bennington, Mr. Reg Cann, Mr. Harry Hughes, Mr. George Hall, Mr. Roy Pengilley, and Mr. Howard Lees, Photographic Officer conducted by Jenny Ford on behalf of Bedford Museum. The interview took place at the Moat House Hotel, Bedford on 18th June 2005. This was on the occasion of the final re-union of RAF personnel and their families of the No.8 PFF Group.

“My name is Howard Lees, I’m 97½ which perhaps accounts for me being too old for air crew during World War Two. Nevertheless I’ve flown in 12 different types of RAF aircraft on experimental work and managed to pull in one very moderate operation. Things didn’t get really serious until after the war was over when I was machine gunned in Java and fired on doing a photo reconnaissance in a Beechcraft with Colonel Van der Post. The war was over by that time.

But coming back to the war I’d only been in the Service just over 12 months when the Pathfinder Force was formed and at that time I was serving on an Operational Training Unit at Litchfield. Operational Training Units were used for training aircrew prior to them going on Operations. My role was to train them in the art of navigation, gunnery and bomb aiming by the use of photography rather than the actual weapons of destruction themselves. I had acquired a bit of reputation as a bit of a rebel. I got into trouble with the Station Commander for introducing my new methods without telling him but nevertheless they were approved by Bomber Command and when the Pathfinder Force I was appointed to take over the post of Photographic Officer. The Intelligence Officer at Litchfield said to me, ‘What have you been up to Lees?’ I said, ‘Nothing, why?’ He said, ‘You must have put up a back to be posted to that man Bennett, bad luck old boy!’ That was the reputation that Air Vice Marshal Bennett, who at that time was just a Group Captain, that was the sort of reputation that he had acquired, quite wrongly as it turned out. I found him a very kind and considerate man provided you did your job properly and you did it with all due modesty.

One of the methods for training air crew in bomb aiming was the use of infra-red targets. We had infra-red lamps installed at various positions throughout the country, there is even one in Hyde Park, another in Benbecula, another in the yard of a tweed factory in Aberdeenshire and so forth. These infra-red lights could not be seen from the air and the job of the Navigator was to find his way to these targets. And then the Bomb Aimer took over and bombed them by operating the camera which was set to tick off the time interval for a bomb to be dropped from the prescribed height. And it recorded this flash which was in Morse code so that every infra-red target could be identified differently, they recorded on the film and where the record finished was the point where the bomb was intended to strike the ground and they were assessed on those photographs accordingly.

There was also a method of training them by day photography, similar idea. The camera was set to take three photographs, one on release, one to link up with the first and the third, and the third one, the centre of the photograph was supposed to represent the centre of bomb strike. Now when it came to actual operations it was a different story. I’d be talking now about practicing over neutral territory where the natives were friendly but to try to do these things over enemy territory when they objected to you doing so and fired at you and tried to bring you down was a different story entirely.

Consequently night photography, which was the main object of my work in Bomber Command and with the Pathfinder Force was a completely different story because after bomb release the obvious tendency of the crew was to take evasive action to avoid the flak and weave. Unless they were straight and level at the time when the photo flash exploded the centre of the photograph which was assessed as the point of bomb strike wouldn’t be the true point because it might be taken at an oblique angle.

Shortly after I joined the Pathfinder Force a New Zealand officer came to me and showed me a close focusing device for a Leica camera and said, ‘How do I use this?’ I explained to him how it was operated and he said, ‘Well, I’ve done that and it doesn’t work!’ I said, ‘What are you trying to do?’ he said, ‘I can’t tell you, it’s top secret.’ I said, ‘Well I’m sorry I’ve gone as far as I can unless you show me what you are trying to photograph I can’t help you anymore’ so he went away. He came back shortly afterwards and said he’d had a word with the A.O.C., that was Air Vice Marshal Bennett, and was to swear me to secrecy and show me what was called a H2S set, this was top secret at this time, it wasn’t used on Operations. It was a device by which radio signals were sent to the ground, rebounded and were recorded on a cathode ray tube according to the reflection, the reflective power of the radio signal, the illumination on the cathode screen varied. For instance if these signals struck water they would be absorbed, if they struck a building they would rebound with full strength, if they struck fields — moderate strength and so forth. So they formed a picture on the cathode ray tube, a very rough guide of the ground beneath. This was to be used, it wasn’t used at that time. It was to be used by navigators to find their way to the target. Anyway, I told him were he’d gone wrong and fixed it all up and that was that. It wasn’t used for some time afterwards
because strangely enough although it was a war winning device it daren’t be used in case the enemy got hold of it so it seemed rather pointless. But it was eventually brought into use. And I remember very well the first night it was used on operations, I drove to three different Pathfinder Stations, collected eight Leica cameras that we’d bought on local purchase, we hadn’t got a special camera for the job. There are pictures of them with these rings that I had made. I collected eight cameras, developed the films. We produced 41 negatives and that night I produced 287 enlargements, 7 off each - that was 5’x5’ prints from 35mm film plus contact strip of three rows of titling which had to be done as a separate operation. I had to get one set of these photographs to Donald Bennett at Royal Air Force Wyton by nine o’clock the following morning to him to fly down to Bomber Command, which was accomplished. That was one of the Operations.

The other one was night photography which I regret to say I criticised it on my training session at the School of Photography at Farnborough. I had the audacity to say ‘That is a bit Heath Robinson, isn’t it?’ I was very firmly put in my place and they said, ‘That’s how it says in the book and that’s how you do it!’ Well it was just stupid because you could not possibly say that the centre of a photograph was where the bomb strike. Because it was all done by timing. The timing was upset by weather conditions, by evasive action to avoid flak and the behaviour of the photo flash. Now the photo flash was a device about 40 inches long and about 4½ inches diameter which was set to explode at point 6 (.6) of the height of the aircraft with a trail angle of 60° of the angle of view of the lens - flash and illuminate the ground and when the photograph was taken, the aircraft came back and the photograph was printed. The interpreters plotted the centre of the photograph as the point of bomb strike. Well of course the aircrew were very indignant indeed! They knew jolly well they’d hit the target or said they had but the centre of the photograph was probably some fields, about three miles away due the fact that it had been taken at an oblique angle. I went to the Station at Graveley, and went over the bombing range in daylight to drop a flash and see how it misbehaved because I had my own theories about it. Now the Halifax has a door which is curved partly underneath the fuselage and is ideal for hanging one’s head down outside to see what goes on, which I did - very securely tied in! And looked underneath the aircraft and watched the flash emerge from the other side and as soon as it came out into the slipstream it cartwheeled. Now the flash is operated by a propeller on the back which has a pin through the shaft. The shaft of the propeller had a hole in it with a pin through it. And so that pin is attached to a lanyard which is secured in the aircraft. And when the flash falls out of the flare chute that taughtens - pulls the pin out, leaves the propeller free to revolve in the slipstream. And when it is fully released and flies off, it releases the firing pin to start the fuse which is preset according to the prescribed bombing height of the aircraft.

But it didn’t quite work out like that. Because when this cartwheeled the propeller would go that way but when the flash was going through the air that way the propeller would go back the other way. So the timing was completely upset and to plot the centre of the photograph was just stupid. So I went to Vice Air Marshal Bennett and said, ‘Could I have a flash produced to be dropped with the bombs, streamlined, shaped like a bomb, with the same ballistics and he said, ‘Lees, bomb hooks are used for killing Germans not for taking their photographs!’ So that was that.

Then I had the idea! Well Target Indicators which were used for marking the target, they are dropped from the bomb bay, from bomb hooks, why not have a Target Indicator incorporated with the flash? Now the Target Indicator was a bomb casing of 250lb. a bomb casing containing 60, what we called ‘candles’ — they are like roman candles, fireworks which were either red, green or yellow according to the colours of the night. They were ejected from the rear of the cylinder, of the bomb cascading to earth and marked the target. So I asked Bennett if we could have some of these candles removed and a flash put in their place and he thought that was a good idea. We had 20 candles taken out leaving 40 to mark the target and the flash put in the place of the other 20 - the flash was ejected with them and instead of bursting after the aircraft - it burst in the view of the lens. And wherever the flash burst was recorded on the film and the point over which the Target Indicators cascaded and that gave you an accurate indication - even if the flash was recorded in the corner of the photograph, we plotted that point and not the middle. So that was one idea.

I had a car that was used throughout the war for staff duties and when I invented this Target Indicator photo flash, when it was ready, Bennett sent for me, I went to his office and he said, ‘Lees, your toy is ready! Pick it up from Wyton bomb dump take it to Feltwell and have it dropped on Rushford range and let me have a report on it.’ So I drove all the way to Feltwell over the very dilapidated state of the roads in those days with this bomb bouncing up and down on the back seat!

Another idea that I developed - these are what you call fire tracks (looking at an aerial print of multiple fire trails in the night sky). The Photographic Officer from Bomber Command visited me one day shortly after I’d joined Pathfinders and said, ‘Have you got a suggestion for overcoming the problem of fire tracks on night photographs?’ And I thought for a minute and I’m not usually very bright but for some mysterious reason it just came to me immediately. ‘Yes, why not have two shutters, two lens. Two shutters operating alternatively. Instead of leaving the shutter open for eight seconds, during which time you get these fire tracks recorded and the more fires that there are on the ground the less chance you have of recording any ground detail. Instead of recording these as lines they’d be cut down to the length of time it took one shutter to expose and energise the solenoid of the second shutter which would take it’s turn. The two would operate for a period of eight seconds, alternatively so that either A or B or as we called them, the Master or the Slave would record the flash and get the photograph that would reduce all that interference. It showed the actual location of the fires on the ground and that’s how it worked out.

But coming back to Air Vice Marshal Bennett, I mentioned that he had a reputation of being a bit of a tyrant but in actual fact he was a very kind man and very considerate. Once he sent for me and said that he wanted me to take a summary of evidence from an Officer who was confined to his quarters because he was suspected of not going to the target, what we called LMF (Lacking Moral Fibre). I protested - I said, ‘I’m sorry Sir, but it’s not fair to ask me to do this because I’ve not been through what he goes through. I’ve no experience of Operations. If you’ll let me go on an Operation I’ll be better qualified to take a summary of evidence.’ And he stood up behind his desk and thundered at me and said, ‘Lees, it’s your duty, men are dying every night!’ and he said it with a real passion. That man felt, in fact I’ve seen him almost in tears when we’ve had a very bad night, a lot of losses. He felt it personally and that was the true nature of the man. I was very proud to serve under him. He worked 24 hours a day, he never took any leave at all, we had to follow his example. I had seven days leave and that was sick leave after a quinsy and I worked seven days a week, 14 hours - 24 hours a day and we all did and we were proud to do for that man - that was a true man!

What I remember of VE Day is Don Bennett’s Personal Assistant said, ‘You are wanted, Lees.’ So I reported to Bennett’s office and there was the Senior Air Staff Officer, three or four Wing Commanders and Mrs. Bennett. And Bennett said, ‘For you Lees, the war is over.’ And that was all I knew about VE Day. I didn’t even have a drink of water let alone champagne. He was a tee totaller and we just dispersed and went back to work. The following day I tried get to Peterborough with three navigation officers. Take them in my car to Peterborough for a bit of a spree and got stuck on the A1 with my master cylinder gone and the car wouldn’t move! That was my celebration of VE Day.”

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