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Grandad's Story - Part 2

by gmractiondesk

You are browsing in:

Archive List > Royal Air Force

Contributed by 
People in story: 
Alec Watson
Location of story: 
Sheffield, Yorkshire
Background to story: 
Royal Air Force
Article ID: 
Contributed on: 
31 January 2006

This story was submitted to the People's War site by a volunteer from the GRM Action Desk on behalf Catriona Watson, Alec's granddaughter, and has been added to the site with her permission. Catriona fully understands the site's terms and conditions.

On my return to England, I was posted to an A.F.U. in Brize Norton near Oxford and I lost touch with my pals from Canada. I had more training on Airspeed Oxfords learning to find my way around using air maps. On one occasion, I was given a free choice and decided to visit Sheffield. On arriving there, I decided to have a look at my home village and give them a little display. I was the only pilot from Dinnington. First, I flew between the two tall chimneys at the Coke Ovens where I worked as a chemist in the laboratories. Then I switched my attention to a football match where I flew over them two or three times just low enough to make them lie down as I passed over. Then I flew over my home where my mother, realising it was me, stood in the garden waving. I waggled my wings to let her know I had seen her then set course for Brize Norton.

At the end of the course, the powers that be must have thought I was quite good and could serve my country best by becoming a flying instructor. Consequently, I was posted to a Flying Instructors School at Montrose in Scotland. It was at Montrose that fellow pupils decided I should learn the social graces and learn to dance. Previously, I had been a keep fit fiend and sportsman, up early for exercise (skipping, dumbells, Indian clubs). I spent about a fortnight learning the waltz, counting 1,2,3 (no one must say 4 or I was lost). I was then taken to my first dance where I managed a couple of waltzes and sat out some others. Then came the second turning point in my life, the band struck up, and I approached a girl to dance. I started to waltz but the girl could not follow me — no wonder — the tune was Jealousy and it was a tango. The girl must have been impressed though or maybe it was the wings that did the trick. The month was June, by the middle of August we were engaged and at the beginning of December, I obtained a fortnight’s leave and went back to Montrose where we were married on December 4th, 1942.

To come back to the Flying Instructors’ course, I had not joined the Air Force to spend the war training others to fly, at least not before I had had a crack at the Germans. So I made a cock-up of the final flying test (which nobody understood but me) and failed.

I was posted to Leconfield for another advanced flying training course to await a posting to an operational training unit where I was classed “above average pilot”. It was discovered I had above average night vision, which meant I would be going on night fighters. From there, I was posted to Lossiemouth for operational training. The CO there discovered there had been a posting mistake. I should have gone to a night fighter unit and another pilot of the same name should have been sent to Lossiemouth. The CO was very philosophical about it, much to my disgust, and I stayed there to learn to fly Wellington bombers.

During the first two weeks, the pilots mixed freely with navigators, bomb aimers, W/ops and air gunners to get to know each other and decide who we would like to crew up with. As soon as I was solo, I chose my crew or maybe they chose me. The crew consisted of me (pilot and captain), navigator Sgt Derek Cryer, bomb aimer Sgt Don Say, W/op Jackie Holt and rear gunner Taffy Price. We then flew together learning to act as a team, doing navigation runs, bombing, air firing, wireless communication, etc. until we were considered capable of operating against the enemy.

A couple of incidents whilst at Lossiemouth —
1. Not long after take off and before we had set course on a navigation run, the dingy, which is normally stored in the starboard engine, inflated itself, blew off its cover and settled on the wing, making flying a little difficult. I managed to shake it off, abandoned the exercise and returned to base.
2. Returning from an exercise and circling the drome preparing to land, I selected “Undercarriage down” and waited for the green lights to come on indicating that the undercarriage was safely locked down, as a safety check. The throttles were then pulled right back, when, if the green lights were faulty, a horn blew. The horn blew! So I opened the throttles again and instructed the bomb aimer to use the hand pump, again the horn blew, so I flew low over the aerodrome and asked the control tower to have a look. They told me the wheels were down and to risk it. I put the crew into their crash landing positions, after first opening the escape hatches, and instructed them to get out as soon as the aircraft came to a halt and run for it in case of fire. Then I came in and landed. We ran along seemingly OK for about 50 yards when the port undercarriage collapsed and we did a ground loop. We got out and ran but fortunately there was no fire. The port wing and engine were a write off.
3. A third incident happened on a navigation run. Whilst we were in the air, fog came down over the whole of the country, the only drome free of fog was on the island of Tyree in the Hebrides and we were ordered to land there. This meant a real test for my navigator because if we missed it the next island was America and we were not carrying enough petrol for that trip. Derek lived up to my faith in him and we landed spot on. My only memories of Tyree were that 90% of the inhabitants were sheep but they were greatly outnumbered by the sand flies which seemed to be everywhere. The CO phoned my wife with the message “Put another blanket on your bed tonight, Alec won’t be home tonight”.

As a crew we were then posted to Leconfield which had changed since I was there last to an Operational Unit. We were put in to 466 Squadron which was an Australian unit to make up their numbers to full strength but when the next Australian crew arrived we were transferred to 196 Squadron which was British and operated from the same station.

My first operation was as a passenger with an experienced crew to Hamburg. I spent most of the time on the trip standing in the middle of the Wellington looking and observing through the astrodome (an awesome sight) or standing beside the pilot. On my second operation, I took my crew to Essen on their first operation, in the heart of the Ruhr, quite a baptism.

There were two types of operation, bombing or mine laying. The usual procedure for a bombing operation was that we were warned during the morning that an operation was on and the aerodrome was closed, no one was allowed in or out so there could be no leaking of information. After lunch, we would assemble at the briefing room usually at 2.00 pm where we were told the target for tonight, buzz of excitement, given the route we would take. This was never a direct route. We would usually take a route giving the Germans the impression that we were heading for another area then change course for the main target. This was in an effort to get the Germans to spread their fighter defences and so reduce the amount around the main target. I don’t know how successful this was, there always seemed to be plenty about when we arrived. We were also given all the relevant information such as take off time, height to fly, weather conditions on route and over the target, wind speeds and direction, which we prayed would be correct , and an E.T.A. at the target. It was vital that we arrived at the correct time otherwise the pattern of bombing would be upset. This information was noted by the member of the crew to whom it was relevant. Maps were then issued to the navigator and me and watches were synchronised before we dispersed to our billets.

About two hours before take off, we were served with a good meal and given a bar of chocolate and an orange to be eaten on the trip, and then back to our billets to get our clobber on.

Clobber consisted of battle dress over which we wore a quilted inner flying suit and an outer flying suit, both shaped like boiler suits. On our feet we had socks, seaboot socks and fur lined flying boots. On our hands we wore silk gloves, woollen gloves and leather gauntlet gloves. All this was necessary as temperatures dropped to between 25 and 30 degrees below.

We were then taken to our dispersal point where our kite (a Wellington Mark X) , bombed up with about 6ooo lbs and fuelled up with 750 gallons of 1000 octane fuel was waiting.

I checked the controls from the outside and that the pilot head cover had been removed. We then climbed aboard, stowed our parachutes. The crew went to their positions and checked their instruments. I took my seat, checked the controls internally, then started up the engines; after allowing them to warm up I checked them at various throttle settings (it would be no use getting into the air to find the controls or engines were not working satisfactorily). We then taxied out to the runway and awaited permission to take off.

After take off, we circled the aerodrome whilst gaining height and then set course for the Norfolk coast. Not long after arriving at Leconfield I managed to get digs in Beverley, brought my wife down from Scotland and got permission to sleep out. I would fly over the house and waggle my wings to let my wife know I would not be home until morning.

We usually took off just before dusk but by the time we reached the Norfolk coast where all the squadrons met up it was getting dark and the aircraft on the edges of the stream were disappearing. Not long after all the aircraft had disappeared in the darkness. You only saw them if they came close enough to see their exhaust stubs glowing (20 to 50 feet). It was then time to take evasive action in case they had not seen you. By the time we set course on the first leg, we were flying at 18000 feet and the navigator had checked the wind speed. If it differed from that given by the Met office, he would work out a new course to fly and pass it on to me. By the way, these aircraft were not pressurised so we had to switch on our oxygen at 10000 feet.

The first leg was usually over the North Sea when the rear gunner would check his guns by firing a burst at the sea. These were the only guns we had. The front guns had been taken out and the front turret streamlined, this gave us an extra 10 mph in speed which we felt would be more useful and the chance of a night fighter attacking us head on at a closing speed in excess of 550 mph was remote. Anyway that was our theory; it seemed to work, I cannot remember ever being attacked head on.

As we crossed the coast, the coastal defences would open up at us with search lights trying to pick us up. It was not long before we were out of range. That was the first hurdle over. The navigator was constantly checking our position and, if necessary, giving alterations to course and speed to make sure that we arrived at the turning point at the prescribed E.T.A.

We would then set course for the target. If you think this part of the course was uneventful, I should point out that all along the way if we came near any defended place search lights would appear and A.A. guns would open up. This occurred quite often no matter which route you were on. The rear gunner and the bomb aimer were also keeping their eyes peeled for enemy fighters, in fact the natives were definitely hostile.

Not long after setting course for the target, I would see a glow in the sky ahead, which I knew was the target. I would inform the navigator that he could relax and prepare a course for the return journey.

I mentioned the pattern of the bombing earlier. I think I should perhaps say a little more about it here. The idea was that the pathfinders would arrive first to identify the primary targets. They would then drop green flares over them to be used by the following aircraft. The pathfinders would also drop red flares over the secondary targets, they would continue to do this during the whole of the raid. Low flying aircraft, usually Mosquitos would also be there. They would advise us if any flares had gone astray and advise us over the RT radio which ones to ignore. We were supposed to keep radio silence but who could resist telling a Wing Commander to belt up or words to that effect, knowing you were unidentifiable.

The bombing was carried out in three waves. The first would be carrying high explosives to knock a few holes in the buildings, the second would be carrying incendiary bombs to drop into the holes to start some fires, the third wave would then follow with more high explosives to keep the fire brigades away until the incendiaries had done their job. When you think there were Wellingtons, Lancasters, Halifaxes and Stirlings all with different flying speeds you will see that it was quite a complex operation to get them there at the right time. For example, the Wellington which had the slowest cruising speed, set off at least half an hour before anyone else although we were usually carrying incendiaries so we were in the second wave. The bomb aimer made his way to the bomb site in the nose of the aircraft and set it up for the height, speed and type of bombs we were carrying.

Up to this point, whenever there had been any anti-aircraft fire or search lights we began a process of weaving to make it more difficult for them to hit us, but now this was impossible. The anti-aircraft fire was not aimed specifically at us, instead they used what we called a “Box Defence”, that is they just filled an airspace above and round the target from a height of approximately 9000 feet to 24000 feet, which covered the flying heights of all our aircraft. Stirlings around 10000 feet to Lancasters at 22000 feet and you just had to fly through it and hope nothing would hit you, only if the searchlights caught you did they aim at you. If the master searchlight caught you, then a dozen others would converge on you and it was almost impossible to escape and you would usually see the aircraft go down in flames. It was a very daunting sight but after maybe five minutes, if you had not been hit, your spirits rose a little — maybe you would get through.

As soon as the bomb aimer had identified the target, he would take over directing me and open the bomb doors when you felt peculiarly naked. No evasive action now just straight and level at the target until the bomb aimer said “Bombs gone” and then for a further 10 to 15 seconds until the bomb aimer had taken a photograph of your bomb bursting. Then it was a steep turn, nose down, and get out of the target area as quickly as possible. Then set course for the Norfolk coast, no dog legs now. As soon as we were away from the target area, I would check that the crew were OK, and warn them to keep a sharp lookout for fighters, which were now the biggest danger. There was no relaxing until we were within range of our own fighters.

As soon as we landed, it was off to the de-briefing room, where we had to give an account of the trip, the photographs were developed to check that our account was true. I never had any complaints so I suppose I must have been fairly successful. Then it was off to the canteen for a bacon and egg breakfast and so to bed.

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